UN SAID TO WITHDRAW WORKERS FROM LAOS OVER SAFETY FEARS


2003-09-11
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Concern over increasing number of ambush attacks

The United Nations has withdrawn two of its foreign workers from an area in the northeast of Laos over concerns for their safety, the Associated Press reports.

The Canadian and Swedish volunteers were working in the northeastern province of Hua Phan, and their supervisors had "taken their people out," UN official was quoted as saying.

The decision comes after a growing number of attacks on buses around the provincial capital, Sam Neua.

The U.S. State Department issued a warning against travel to the area last month. It cited reports of at least four ambushes in the area, including an alleged robbery attempt on a bus that left 10 people dead.

Shootings and bombings have also occurred further south, including in the capital, Vientiane, and resulting in "death and injury to civilians," the State Department said.

Two Swiss tourists died and at least 20 other people were killed in separate ambushes in February and April on a road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, which are both popular with foreign tourists. No-one has claimed responsibility for those attacks.

The warnings came as police chiefs from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Manila to discuss anti-terror strategies in the region.

In a joint communique issued after the meeting, they agreed to monitor "newly-emerging militant and radical groups and take action to prevent them from developing into full-blown terrorist groups."

Delegates also called for the development of training programs to improve capabilities in monitoring and fighting terrorism and to seek stronger laws in their respective countries against terror groups.

Last week, a military court in Vientiane sentenced two men to life imprisonment and a third man to 14 months in jail over a string of bombings in the capital last year and early 2000.

Bounleuth Senkeo, 34, and a man identified only as Khonesavanh, 26, were given life prison terms "for involvement in the bomb blasts in Vientiane," the state news agency KPL said. The sentencing took place on Sept. 4.

Bounleuth and Khonesavanh were found guilty of orchestrating a number of bombings in Vientiane in 2000, including at the French Embassy and the post office.

The post office blast injured 18 people. The two men were also found guilty of planting bombs at the National Culture Hall and embassies in September 2002.

They were caught after they flung a grenade into a candlelight procession at a temple in September 2002, injuring a child.

They reportedly "confessed" to being rewarded for the bombings with cash and motorbikes by certain "bad elements abroad," KPL said.

At least nine bomb explosions rocked usually sleepy Vientiane between March and November 2000. Provincial towns were also targeted.

The unclaimed bombings injured dozens of people, including foreigners. The Lao government did not identify any suspects at the time.

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