U.N. to Fly Montagnard Refugees to Phnom Penh



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PHNOM PENH — ; U.N. refugee officials plan in the coming days to fly a first group of 30 Montagnard refugees to the Cambodian capital from the malaria-infested jungles where they have been hiding, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.

"Transporting them by road is taking too long," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Tham Meechubot told RFA's Khmer service. "This will be faster... Now I am looking for a bigger place to accommodate them when they arrive."

UNHCR officials are chartering a flight from Rattanakiri Province, along with Vietnamese border, to Phnom Penh on Monday, he said, and scores of other will follow by additional charter flights. A total of 181 Montagnard refugees from Vietnam are now in UNHCR care in Rattanakiri, he said.

In Hanoi, U.S. Ambassador Raymond Burghardt said he is open to discussing with Vietnam a plan to resettle ethnic Montagnard tribespeople directly from the restive Central Highlands to the United States. Vietnam has said it would let Montagnards who fled to neighboring Cambodia following unrest in their homeland to resettle in a third country, most likely the United States.

Cambodian Red Cross Deputy-Secretary General So Khum said separately that he is preparing to send a large quantity of emergency rations "rice, instant noodles, and other foods" next week.

Earlier in the week, Vietnam said it would consider third-country resettlement of Montagnard refugees who fled to neighboring Cambodia after a crackdown in Vietnam's Central Highlands.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said Vietnam was also prepared to accept any refugees who wanted to return home. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has made clear that Cambodia does not want to be "to be turned into a refugee camp," he said.

About 100 of the mainly Protestant Montagnards from Vietnam's Central highlands have already managed to reach the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Another 181 are in UNHCR hands in Rattanakiri, many of them ill and all having survived for weeks or months on roots, leaves, and other jungle vegetation.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong quoted Hun Sen as saying the UNHCR would be given a month to process the asylum seekers and find a third country to accept them. Failing that, Cambodia would send them back to Vietnam.

The current exodus of ethnic hill tribespeople from Vietnam's Central Highlands began in April following massive demonstrations against religious repression and land confiscation by the Vietnamese government.

Those protests, which drew an estimated 10,000 people to the streets in Daklak and Gia Lai provinces, turned violent as Vietnam's police and security forces clashed with demonstrators.

Human rights groups have said that at least 10 people died and dozens others were injured, while Vietnam maintains only two were killed.

Vietnam has accused the U.S.-based Montagnard Foundation, led by a former guerrilla leader allied with America during the Vietnam War, with organizing what it called an "uprising" to call for a separate state.

Related Stories:

Vietnam Will Discuss Montagnard Resettlement 2004.07.23

Related Links:

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees

Montagnard Foundation

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