Almost four-dozen members of a Vietnamese ethnic-minority group have emerged from months of hiding in the jungles of Cambodia to seek assistance from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The U.N. agency has given protection to the 44 Vietnamese hill tribesmen, known as Montagnards, who had been hiding in the malaria-infested jungles of northeastern Cambodia since fleeing Vietnam last April. They originally fled Vietnam after police used tear gas and truncheons to disperse thousands of the Christian tribesmen, who had gathered to protest religious persecution and the confiscation of their ancestral lands.

A similar protest in 2001 sent more than a thousand Montagnards fleeing across the border to Cambodia.

The 44 Montagnards came out of hiding Sunday in the Cambodian border province of Ratannakiri. They were short of food, and were suffering from a variety of ailments.

The acting UNHCR representative in Bangkok, Bhairaja Panday, says the Cambodian government is cooperating fully with the U.N. agency. "Right now there is a [Cambodian] government party there together with the UNHCR, processing those cases. We have not examined their claims yet," he says. "They have just come out of their hiding. So, we will now examine their cases and decide if there are refugees among them. Then we would have to provide them with international protection."

Mr. Panday says the fate of the Montagnards will be deciding in the coming days. "Right now, we have found a safe house for them to be kept in Ratannakiri," he says. "If they are not refugees, then we have to decide for those that may not qualify for [refugee] status, whether they want to be transferred to Phnom Penh, or whether they want to return home."

Initially, Cambodia refused to cooperate with the United Nations on the case, calling the hill tribesmen economic migrants, and sending at least 160 back to Vietnam.

But following criticism from human-rights groups, the Cambodian government last month allowed the UNHCR to reopen its offices in two border provinces to assist the tribesmen. The agency believes other Montagnards might still be hiding in the jungle.

The Montagnards are a Protestant Christian group, whose traditional home is Vietnam's Central Highlands. They fought with American troops against communist forces during the Vietnam War, and thousands have settled in the United States since the war ended 29 years ago.