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Cambodia Accepts US Offer to Settle Vietnamese Refugees - 2002-03-31

Hundreds of ethnic Vietnamese refugees in Cambodia will be allowed to resettle in the United States under an agreement announced Sunday. The decision ends months of uncertainty over the future of the refugees, but could further cool relations between the United States and Vietnam.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the deal to resettle about 900 Vietnamese hill-tribe people after months of negotiations with Washington and the United Nations. An official with the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh praised the move as "a significant humanitarian act."

The mostly Christian hill-tribe people fled Vietnam's troubled central highlands region last year after major anti-government riots. Many say they were persecuted for their religion and faced retaliation if they returned to Vietnam. They have spent nearly a year in makeshift camps on the Cambodian border.

The United Nations refugee agency earlier this year agreed to help return the refugees to Vietnam. But the U.N. pulled out of the deal this month, saying Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities were forcing them over the border against their will.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said the resettlement of the refugees in the United States will end a "very serious headache" for Cambodia's government. But the move is likely to cause a new strain in relations between Hanoi and Washington.

Vietnam reacted to the initial U.S. asylum offer last month by accusing the United States of meddling in its internal affairs. Hanoi considers the asylum seekers to be illegal migrants, not refugees, and accuses U.S.-based exile groups of instigating the exodus to embarrass the communist government.