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Laos Arrests European Journalists, American in Battle with Rebels

The Lao government says it has arrested two European journalists and an American of Lao origin who were caught in a battle between Hmong rebels and Lao militia forces. An investigation into the incident is under way amid calls for the immediate release of the three men.

The three men were arrested in the northeastern Xieng Khuang province, about 170 kilometers from Vientiane.

Belgian journalist Thierry Falise, French photojournalist Vincent Reynaud and Nan Karl Mua, an American citizen of Hmong origin, were detained last week while accompanying a group of Hmong fighters.

Ly Southavilay, a spokesman for the Lao Foreign Ministry, says the men were arrested by local militia because they were cooperating with what he called local bandits. He said the bandits had killed a village security man.

Mr. Ly said the men had also breached their tourist visas by working as journalists.

Diplomats in Vientiane say the three men and the Hmong rebels were caught in a firefight with the militia. One militia soldier was killed and several people were wounded.

The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Frontiers has called on the Lao government to release the journalists.

The Hmong rebels, who are believed to number several thousand, have been fighting an insurgency in remote regions of Laos since the Communist Party took control of the country in 1975.

Supporters of the Hmong say the group has been targeted for government persecution because they had been allied with the previous pro-American government.

The journalists' arrest comes after a recent series of attacks on Lao travelers and tourists.

On February 12, a dozen people were killed in an attack on several vehicles on a main highway. Two European tourists were among the dead. In April, another dozen people died and more than 30 injured in an attack on a tour bus.

The Lao government has stepped up security along the highway, but diplomats say more gunfights have been reported in recent weeks.