Laos has released and deported three of four U.S. nationals held for two days by Lao authorities after witnessing the reported surrender of 170 relatives of Hmong ethnic rebels, known for their support of U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
The three Americans are from a U.S.-based non-government group promoting the Lao Hmong. They were deported late Monday from Laos after being handed over to U.S. embassy officials.
Those released were Ed Szendrey, his wife Georgie and a Hmong-American, Nhia Vang Yang. But another Hmong American, Sia Cher Vang, remains detained in Laos. U.S. activists accuse Lao security forces of committing atrocities against the Hmong, who have fought for years against the Lao Government.
The four are members of a California-based group called the Fact Finding Commission, formed to support the Hmong. The group says there are thousands of Hmong rebel fighters and their families in the jungles of Laos, and many of them are now looking to surrender after three decades of being on the run from the Laotian government.
The Lao government does not acknowledge the Hmong rebellion and denies committing any human rights abuses against its ethnic people.
Mr. Szendrey said after he had received information a group of Hmong women and children were to leave the jungle, he went to Xieng Khouang province in central Laos to witness their surrender.
"Our purpose for being here was to encourage the people that their best option, although neither option is good, but better than staying in the forest and starve, was to try and come out and see if the international community could work with Laos to provide for them and care for them," he said.
Mr. Szendrey said the group had parted with other members of their tribe in the early hours of Saturday in the forests of Xieng Khouang province.
"There were a few very young men but mostly women, children and the elderly. You had some of the elderly being carried on backs of others. You had many, many small children, all very hungry, all very afraid," added Mr. Szendrey.
The group was welcomed by local villagers but Lao military later arrived and the Hmong were taken away.
The Americans were later arrested by authorities at a checkpoint about 55 kilometers from Vientiane, the Laotian capital, and questioned at immigration offices. Their cameras, film and mobile phones were confiscated.
Lao foreign ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy, denied the Americans' version of events, calling them "troublemakers." Mr. Yong said the 170 Hmong had not been "surrendering" but seeking assistance from authorities to get more agricultural land.
"If we compare to the reality which [Mr. Szendrey] tried to distort and manipulate the gathering as a surrender of people coming out from the jungle, which is really untrue," said Yong Chanthalangsy. "They [the Americans] recognize they made a mistake that is why we decide to release them and deport them and that is the end of the story."
Mr. Yong denied that the Lao military was taking action against ethnic minorities or that thousands of Hmong were still living in the jungle. He said the man who remains in custody, Mr. Sia, a businessman based in Laos, was still being questioned. He did not say when he would be released.
The Lao government says its policies are aimed at eradicating poverty and that all the country's ethnic groups are viewed as equal.
During the Vietnam War members of the ethnic Hmong had been recruited as part of the U.S.-led war against communism. After the war hundreds of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand. Many were later resettled in the United States.