PHNOM PENH�Cambodia�s King Norodom Sihanouk has called for Cambodian and U.N. protection for Vietnamese Montagnards caught in clashes in Vietnam�s Central Highlands this week, RFA reports.

�I call on the Royal Government of Cambodia and the United Nations to protect the Montagnards and not to expel, or let be expelled, from Cambodia, these unfortunates seeking shelter in our home,� King Sihanouk said in a statement.

As clashes erupted over the weekend in Vietnam�s Central Highlands, Cambodian police tightened security along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border to prevent a new deluge of Vietnamese Montagnard refugees.

King Sihanouk�s statement came in response to the tightened border security, which contravenes the Geneva Convention�to which Cambodia is a signatory.

The king�s comments drew support from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. �I support [the king�s appeal] because we must abide by the convention on refugees that Cambodia has ratified,� Cambodian Center for Human Rights Director Kem Sokha said.

�We must respect it and in order to strictly adhere to it, we must work with the United Nations in order to do something that the United Nations wants and asks us to do, such as having refugee camps,� he said.

Son Tuon, president of the U.S.-based Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation, also urged the Cambodian government to permit fleeing Montagnards to seek temporary asylum in Cambodia.

Vietnam has meanwhile lifted a travel ban barring foreigners from the Central Highlands, closed off and tightly patrolled since Saturday. Airports in Daklak and Gia Lai provinces have also been reopened to overseas visitors.

On Wednesday, Vietnamese sources told RFA additional troops had been sent to the region. A day later authorities said the situation had returned to normal.

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry meanwhile rejected charges that protesters had been beaten to death in Buon Ma Thuot and that some had been shot and thrown into a river.

�This is not the first time Human Rights Watch and the [U.S.-based] Montagnard Foundation have produced such ill-willed fabrications. We therefore categorically reject the wrongful information,� spokesman Le Dung said. �I would like to reiterate that all aspects of life in the Central Highlands are normal.�

Human Rights Watch reported that, according to witnesses, many ethnic minority Montagnards were beaten to death in clashes on Sunday with Vietnamese police, though casualty figures are unavailable. But Vietnam�s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Le Dung, denied those allegations.

Since last weekend, dozens, if not hundreds, of Montagnards are missing, Human Rights Watch said.

Montagnards living near Buon Emap in Cu Mgar district, Dak Lak province reported that all of the men in Emap village disappeared the night of April 10. Whether they were arrested or went into hiding is unknown.

Thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday in Buon Ma Thuot for what was expected to be a peaceful Easter prayer�but the gathering turned into a major demonstration against religious repression and land confiscation.

In February 2001, Hanoi crushed a major uprising in the highlands over religious and property rights and has since then kept the area under tight control�with diplomats and reporters required to obtain clearance before visiting. A deluge of refugees fled across the border into Cambodia, with nearly 1,000 accepted into the United States as refugees.

The Cambodian government views Montagnard asylum-seekers as illegal migrants.

In its 2003 report on human rights around the world, the State Department cited �numerous credible reports that groups of Montagnards continued to flee to Cambodia to escape ethnic and religious repression in the Central Highlands. Government officials continued to harass some highland minorities, particularly the Hmong in the northwest provinces and several ethnic groups in the Central Highlands, for practicing their Protestant religion without official approval.� #####


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