Scores More Montagnards Leave Cambodian Jungles


2004-07-21
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PHNOM PENH — ; More than 100 Vietnamese Montagnards have now been lured out of the Cambodian jungle to seek U.N. refugee assistance, according to officials working for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Cambodia says the UNHCR has 30 days in which to find a country willing to resettle them, or else it will send them back to Vietnam.

Many of the Montagnards are seriously ill and have lived in the jungles since April. Vietnamese authorities cracked down on on the group after its protests against land confiscation in Vietnam's Central Highlands and religious persecution.

In the last five days, more than 120 Montagnards, who practice an unorthodox form of Protestant Christianity, have appeared from the jungle where – ; in the days of the Vietnam War – ; communist troops traveled secretly on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Around 100 more have managed to reach the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to claim asylum. Human rights groups say at least 200 more are hiding in the untamed region.

Those arriving in Banlung told of weeks of hardship deep in the forest, in makeshift camps made of sticks and leaves.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong meanwhile announced that the UNHCR would be given one month to process the asylum seekers and find a third country to accept them.

"If within a month there is no third country to receive them, Cambodia will send them back to Vietnam," Hor Namhong said.

The Montagnards – ; often called "America's forgotten allies" because they sided with the United States during the Vietnam War – ; claim they fled persecution at the hands of Vietnamese authorities following Easter Day protests in April over land and religious rights.

Cambodia initially labeled them illegal migrants and refused requests from aid workers and journalists to visit the region and assess the situation.

But after continued pressure from King Norodom Sihanouk, diplomats, and human rights groups, the UNHCR was permitted to reopen its office in Banlung, provincial capital of in Cambodia's Ratanakiri Province, last week.

The Montagnards say they have survived mainly by eating leaves, wild mushrooms, and roots.

U.N. workers and government officials will now interview the Montagnards to decide whether they should be treated as asylum seekers and sent to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Human rights workers put the death toll of April's deadly demonstrations in Vietnam at 10, but Hanoi said only two people died. Cambodian border authorities tightened security after the latest unrest.

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