BANGKOK-The number of Lao rebels and their relatives surrendering to authorities and seeking amnesty has risen to roughly 1,000 since late February, RFA's Lao service reported.
Most of those emerging from the jungle are women, children, and the elderly, a reliable government source said. The source, who asked not to be named, said Lao troops had been actively pressing any remaining anti-government rebels to surrender.
"Since the end of February, Lao troops have been surrounding areas where they believe anti-government insurgents are hiding and active," the official said. "More than 1,000 have surrendered to authorities-they mainly comprise women, children, and the elderly. Most are suffering from severe hunger and malnutrition."
The Lao government denies the existence of any rebels inside the country and maintains that people emerging from the jungles are being relocated as part of the government's poverty-alleviation program.
On March 3, RFA reported that some 150 people had surrendered near Luang Prabang-including three high-ranking rebel officers-and between 300 and 500 people had surrendered in Xieng Khouang Province, including five generals of the ethnic Hmong minority.
The official said the troops have been targeting areas such as Saysomboun Special Zone, and Xieng Khouang and Bolkhamxay provinces. But the Lao government contends they have merely been conducting an amnesty program for those who surrender from the jungle, the official said.
Some U.S.-backed Hmong fought Lao and Vietnamese communists during the Vietnam War. When the communists took over in 1975, about 130,000 Hmong fled to the United States through Thailand. Many of those who were left behind have continued their struggle against the communist authorities.
According to the State Department's 2003 report on human rights around the world, rebel and counterinsurgent clashes increased last year.
"As a result of intensified insurgent attacks against civilian targets, security forces increased counterinsurgency operations, leading to unconfirmed reports of deaths of ethnic Hmong villagers in connection with security sweeps in remote parts of Saysomboun Special Zone, Xieng Khouang, and Houaphanh Provinces," the report said.
"Relatively quiescent in recent years, the long-running anti-government insurgency increased its activities during the year, resulting in scores of civilian and military casualties."
Despite the presence of Hmong officials in the upper ranks of the Lao government, discrimination against the Hmong continued, the report said, adding "some Hmong believe their ethnic group cannot coexist on an equal basis with the ethnic Lao population."