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Ethnic Vietnamese Refugees Await Resettlement

More than 900 ethnic hill tribe refugees from Vietnam have arrived in the Cambodian capital to await resettlement in the United States. There are reports that one of their camps was looted shortly after the refugees departed.

The last of the Montagnard refugees arrived by military air transport Tuesday afternoon from their camp in the northeastern province of Ratanakkiri. The refugees in a second camp, in Mondulkiri province, arrived in the capital by truck on Monday.

They are being housed temporarily in an abandoned garment factory.

Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, says that after the refugees left the Mondulkiri camp, area residents destroyed it. He says UNHCR staff witnessed the destruction. "A local population kind of came into the camp and the local police, and started looting and dismantling the place. The police watched and did nothing. Then the place was burned. We barely managed to save our office equipment," Mr. Janowski said.

Mr. Janowski, however, says the camp at Ratanakkiri was not destroyed.

The U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia downplays the reports. He says that nearly everyone had already left and there was little remaining to be taken. The ambassador says some of the villagers reportedly were asked to help take apart the bamboo huts but instead walked off with the materials.

The Montagnards must now undergo medical tests and interviews before receiving visas to the United Sates, which should take two to four weeks.

Prime Minister Hun Sen vows to close the camps once the Montagnards are gone. He says Cambodia will force back any migrants from Vietnam, because the government does not recognize them as refugees. Authorities have said the government has already reinforced the border in the two provinces where the camps sit.

The resettlement of the Montagnards comes after an agreement on voluntary repatriation, signed by Cambodia, Vietnam and the United Nations, collapsed earlier this year.

During the Vietnam War, members of the hill tribes fought with U.S. troops in South Vietnam, against the communist North. Many of those fighters fled the country after the war and have been resettled in the U.S..

Last year, about 1,000 tribes people fled Vietnam into Cambodia. They said their protests to obtain land rights and greater religious freedom had prompted a harsh government crackdown from Hanoi.