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Officials Downplay Latest Laos Attacks - 2003-04-22

Armed attacks against civilians in northern Laos are raising international concern and may affect tourism, an important source of revenue for the small communist nation.

A Laotian journalist with the state news agency says he feels like a "dead man born anew" after surviving the latest in a series of attacks against travelers.

Somboon Kaewchaiyajak told the Associated Press that gunmen shot at the bus he was on and set it on fire during a rest stop Sunday outside Veing Kham village. Twelve people were killed and 31 injured.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad says the incident was just a robbery. He is downplaying fears the attack was carried out by ethnic Hmong rebels. A similar attack two weeks ago killed two Swiss tourists.

The United States is warning citizens to be extra careful. But James Warren with the American Embassy in Vientiane says the attacks are confined in their scope. "The only problems that we have had are along this one stretch of Route 13, and even there foreigners are not the target," said the official.

Ethnic Hmong militants have been waging a low-level rebellion in the northern part of the country since the 1975 communist takeover. Laos accuses Thailand of supporting the rebels, which Thailand denies. The Lao government also says the rebels receive backing from ethnic Hmong living in the United States.