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PHNOM PENH�Cambodia has agreed to let the U.N. refugee agency open two offices along the Vietnamese border to aid minority Montagnards fleeing alleged persecution in Vietnam, RFA's Khmer service reports.

"We plan to allow the UNHCR to open offices to access the Montagnards, but we still need the cooperation of the local authorities in that area," Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told RFA on Monday.

The timeline for opening the offices was unknown.

The two offices will be opening in Rattanakiri and Mondolkiri provinces, where most Montagnards cross the border. Cambodia has faced a storm of criticism over the last year since it forced the UNHCR to close its operations in the northeastern provinces.

Last week 15 ambassadors from the European Union gathered in Phnom Penh to urge Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to regard the Montagnards as refugees and respect Cambodia�s obligations under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention.

After meeting with the EU delegates, Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong told reporters the government would be easing its stance against the refugees and will allow many of them into UNHCR custody for third-country resettlement.

"The Government of Cambodia will soften its stance for those [Montagnards] who are deemed real refugees and granted identification by the UNHCR in order to relocate them to the third countries. For those who are not qualified as refugees, we will send them back," he said.

The government has already interviewed many Montagnards to see if they qualify as refugees, Hor Namhong said. How the Cambodian government is assessing the Montagnards� refugee status was unclear.

Meanwhile, Bureau for Asia and the Pacific of the UNHCR Director Jean-Marie Fakhouri is scheduled to go to Phnom Penh in July to sign a memorandum of understanding with Cambodia on the handling of the Montagnard refugees.

The Montagnards, who protested in Vietnam April 10-11 to demand religious freedom, return of ancestral lands, and the establishment of an independent state, suffered hundreds of injuries and at least 10 deaths during a crackdown by police and pro-government mobs, according to witnesses.

Since then many more have fled across the border to Cambodia. #####


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