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Cambodia Considering US Plan to Resettle Vietnamese Refugees - 2002-03-27

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen said Wednesday he is considering an offer by the United States to resettle more than 900 refugees from Vietnam living under U.N. protection in the remote Cambodian northeast.

Hun Sen said he is considering a proposal, which was announced by the U.S. State Department Tuesday, formally offering to resettle 935 ethnic minority asylum seekers, who are known collectively as Montagnards. The asylum seekers fled from Vietnam's central highlands and have been stranded in two camps in Cambodia's northeastern provinces of Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri.

A senior advisor to the prime minister said the government has agreed on resettling the Montagnards in a third country, but has not yet decided to accept the U.S. proposal. U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann told VOA the Cambodian government has shown signs it would like to resettle the Montagnards, but that the government's decision to send them to the United States is "a bit unclear and ambiguous at this point." Mr. Wiedemann refused to comment on the specifics of any proposed resettlement plans between the Cambodian government and the United States.

Any move to a third country could anger the Vietnamese government, which, in early 2001, accused Washington of meddling in Vietnam's internal affairs after the resettlement of at least 38 asylum seekers.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said over the weekend it was abandoning a repatriation agreement signed with Cambodia and Vietnam for the voluntary return of the Montagnards. It pulled out after claims by U.N. staff members last week that they were threatened and "manhandled" when nearly 450 Vietnamese were bused into one of the U.N. camps, a claim Vietnamese officials have denied.

The tripartite agreement nearly collapsed earlier this month after the Cambodian government was accused of continuing forced deportations of asylum seekers still trickling across the border in violation of the international refugee convention signed by Cambodia in 1951. Repatriations under the tripartite agreement had already been halted after the Vietnamese government refused the UNHCR unrestricted access to the central highlands, the area where the asylum seekers had fled after government crackdowns on the hill tribe peoples more than a year ago.

Fifteen Montagnards have returned home under the agreement, some 130 others have reportedly returned voluntarily without U.N. assistance, and almost 100 others were reportedly forcibly returned to Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, members of the ethnic minorities fought with U.S. Special Forces against the communist north. Many of those fighters later fled the country and were resettled in the U.S. after the war.