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Cambodia Denies Accusations of Repatriating Refugees - 2002-03-06

The Cambodian government is denying it is forcibly expelling refugees, and officials are accusing the U.N. refugee agency of illegally transporting people from Vietnam into Cambodia.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman denies allegations from a visiting U.N. human-rights envoy that the government forcefully repatriated 63 Vietnamese hill-tribe people a few days ago. He instead describes the refugees as illegal immigrants who were ferried to Cambodia from Vietnam by officials with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The hill-tribe people, known as Montagnards, fled Vietnam's Central Highlands last year. They left after the Vietnamese government cracked down on their religious practices and their protests over land rights.

Earlier this year, the United Nations, Hanoi and Phnom Penh agreed to repatriate the refugees.

But on the first day of a weeklong visit, U.N. human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht joined local rights groups in condemning the alleged forced deportation of the refugees.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Sieng Lapress says Mr. Leuprecht is hampering cooperation with the UNHCR and the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments. He also repeats the government's position that the hill-tribe people are illegal immigrants.

The government also denies allegations that electric batons were used to subdue protestors during a recent visit by Cambodian and Vietnamese officials to two camps, where about 1,000 asylum seekers are living.

The agreement to repatriate the Vietnamese was reached under tremendous pressure to stem the flow of asylum seekers across the Cambodian the border. But the UNHCR temporarily halted repatriations after being accused of acting too quickly to move the refugees home. Cambodia, however, wants all of them returned by the end of April.

At least 76 refugees have voluntarily returned home.

UNHCR, Cambodian and Vietnamese officials are to discuss the repatriation effort March 12 in Ho Chi Minh City.