Laos 'moving toward' Hmong access: US diplomat
HANOI (AFP) - Laos was "moving toward" allowing access to ethnic Hmong whose repatriation by Thailand in December sparked international outrage, a US diplomat said Saturday.
"I think the Lao have indicated that they're moving toward allowing access but (it) may not be as quickly as we would like," the diplomat, who asked not to be named, told Western reporters.
"My sense is they indicated they were open to that," said the diplomat, who spoke in Vietnam after recent talks -- which he described as "quite good" -- in neighbouring Laos.
Laotian officials "did not rule it out" but neither did they give a definite date for international access, the diplomat said.
Bangkok sparked outrage in December when it defied global criticism and used troops to repatriate about 4,500 Hmong from camps on the border with communist Laos, including 158 recognised as refugees by the United Nations.
The United States, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands had offered to resettle the 158.
"We're seeking access to them, to be able to talk to them and ask them what they want to do. That was actually the group we focused on," the diplomat said.
A spokesman for the Lao government has said that, to his knowledge, none of the repatriated Hmong had requested resettlement in a third country.
Human rights groups have expressed concern for the safety of the returnees but the diplomat said, "I'm not sure we've heard any reports of mistreatment."
He said a US Congressman met a few of them on a recent visit, while others have got information out to relatives using mobile telephones.
"So we've heard indirectly about... some of them who, as far as we can tell, are fine, fine in the sense of not being harmed, persecuted, anything like that," he said.
"But we stressed to the Lao that the only way to really assure everybody involved would be really to allow access to those people."Thailand and Laos both say the Hmong, who fear persecution for fighting alongside US forces in the Vietnam War, were illegal economic immigrants.