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Vietnam Unopposed to US Asylum for Refugees in Cambodia - 2002-04-01

Vietnam says it will not oppose political asylum in the United States for hundreds of refugees in Cambodia. But border guards have increased patrols to keep more Vietnamese ethnic minorities from crossing the border.

In an easing of its strong rhetoric of the past, Vietnam's communist government said Monday nearly 1,000 ethnic minorities who fled the country last year are free to choose whether to come home or relocate to the United States. But Hanoi said the resettlement was a unique situation, and would not be repeated in the future.

Cambodian border guards said they are increasing patrols this week, and officials vowed that any new Vietnamese migrants would be deported immediately.

Both Cambodia and Vietnam fear that allowing the asylum seekers to emigrate could create a flood of refugees into Cambodia from Vietnam's restless central highlands region, the site of anti-government riots last year.

The compromise announced over the weekend seems to end nearly a year of diplomatic tug-of-war over the mostly Christian hill-tribe people, who have lived for nearly a year in makeshift camps on the border. No timetable has been set for leaving the camps.

The ethnic minorities say they have been persecuted for their religion and feared retaliation if they returned to Vietnam. Hanoi denies any religious persecution and for months demanded that the asylum seekers be sent home.

Last month the United Nations refugee agency pulled out of an earlier agreement to help return the refugees, saying Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities were forcing them over the border against their will.

Vietnam last month accused the U.S. of meddling in its internal affairs for offering asylum to the refugees. Monday's statement appeared, for now, to signal a softer tone.