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Laos blasts UN on Hmong

(dpa) - Laos on Wednesday blasted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for getting involved in a move by Thailand to deport 152 Hmong back to Laos, describing the deportation as a bilateral issue.

"The issue is related to Laos and Thailand and there is no reason third parties should interfere with this," said Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanhthalousy.

The UNHCR and the New York-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on the Thai government to stop the pending deportation of 152 Hmong refugees to Laos, claiming that to do so will be a violation of international law.

The UNHCR has listed 104 of the 152 Hmong as "refugees," making them eligible for protection from deportation and resettlement to a third country.

The granting of the refugee status of the Hmong ethnic minority group has irked Laos.

"There is no war, no conflict in Laos so on what criteria has the UNHCR included these people under its category of political refugees?" said Yong, in a telephone interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa from Vientiane. "I want to know whether the UNHCR has extended its work to include economic refugees," he said.

Laos has repeatedly denied reports that it continues to carry out military campaigns against remnant Hmong resistance groups that have a history of opposition to the communist regime.

Thailand has classified the 152 Hmong as "illegal immigrants," not refugees. The fate of the 152 is likely to be decided on December 19 when Thailand and Laos are scheduled to hold a meeting on bilateral issues, said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Kitti Wasrinond.

The controversy over what to do with the 152 Hmong was sparked last Friday when Thai authorities took the group out of Bangkok's immigration detention centre and trucked them to Nong Khai town, bordering Laos, where they are reportedly awaiting deportation.

Vientiane, the Lao capital, lies just across the Mekong River from Nong Khai.

The threat of deportation has drawn strong criticisms from the UNHCR.

"It would be a violation of international law for the Thais to deport them so we are working very hard to avoid that," UNHCR spokesperson Kitty McKinsey said on Tuesday, claiming that the lives of the Hmong might be endangered should they be forced to return to Laos.

Thailand deported 53 Hmong back to Laos on November 15, whose fate remains unknown for lack of independent verification of their whereabouts.

Yong, however, denied that the group had been sent to "re-education" camps, as Human Rights Watch has reported.

"They have gone back to their native villages and they are free like any normal citizen in our country. They are free as the air," said Yong.

He stopped short, however, of inviting the UNHCR to visit the Hmong returnees.

The 152 Hmong, who were arrested in Bangkok on November 17, have been living in Thailand for the past two years and claim to have fled persecution at the hands of Lao authorities because of their alleged connection with ethnic Hmong resistance groups in Laos.

The Hmong are a sensitive issue for the Lao government. During the Indochina War, the US military recruited tens of thousands of Hmong, an ethnic minority group that settled in Laos' mountainous areas, to serve as a guerrilla force against the Vietnamese and Lao communist troops.

When the US lost the war in 1975, the Hmong were left to fend for themselves. They were eventually defeated by the Lao and Vietnamese forces in 1975 to 1976, prompting hundreds of thousands of Hmong to flee Laos and seek resettlement abroad, primarily in the US.

Remnant Hmong resistance groups remain in Laos, financed primarily by the overseas Hmong in the US.

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