KHEK NOI, Thailand (AFP) – The Thai army began the forcible return Monday of thousands of ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers to communist Laos despite international protests and fears they could face persecution.
"The operation started at 5.30 am (2230 GMT Sunday)," Colonel Thana Charuvat, who is coordinating the operation, told reporters at an army centre about 12 kilometres (seven miles) from a Hmong camp in .
He said 5,000 soldiers, officials and assisting civilian volunteers had entered the camp in Huay Nam Khao village in the province of to begin rounding up more than 4,000 Hmong being held there.
Sixteen trucks carrying more than 400 people lef the camp shortly before 9.30 am (0230 GMT), according to an AFP photographer at the army centre in Khek Noi village. Media were not allowed beyond that point.
The Hmong are Thailand claiming that they face persecution by the Laotian regime for fighting alongside US forces during the Vietnam War, and Washington has voiced strong concern over the expulsions. in
"Around 2,100 of the them are cooperating with the move. The army is talking with the rest," Thana said. The operation was expected to take one day.
Thailand says they are illegal economic immigrants, but has come under fire from the international community for refusing to grant the UN Refugee Agency access to them to assess whether any are political refugees.
Thana said the group would be removed from the Huay Nam Khao camp by truck and later transferred to 100 buses that carry 40 people each.
"They will be transported from the camp to the army camp in Lom Sak district (in Phetchabun) before moving to immigration in Laos," he said. (by the border) and going to
Security forces were seen heading towards the camp by truck armed with batons and shields.
Special forces members were among the troops entering the camp and 50 mobile prison trucks also arrived there last night, said Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand analyst at -based Human Rights Watch.
"The army said they would first target group leaders and potential trouble makers. Those people would be snatched and sent out first," he told AFP.
He said local officials expected the Hmong to resist deportation attempts, warning that the situation could "turn ugly".
The Thai government has promised Laos, which insists the group will be safe after returning, that they would be sent back by the end of the year.
"The Lao government confirmed that they will give amnesty to the Hmong leaders," Thana said.
But the United States has said it would be "deeply dismayed" by the deportation and made a last-ditch offer Sunday to help Thailand take an alternative path.
"We have made it abundantly clear that we are prepared to roll up our sleeves and work with partners in Thailand for a solution that is humane and responsible," said Eric P. Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for population, refugees and migration.
"Even at this late date we're fully prepared to do that," he told AFP in a telephone interview from the United States.
Diplomats have said several hundred Hmong could have valid fears of persecution and as such should not be forcibly returned.
"It seems difficult to imagine there will be fully fledged international access to the Hmong community on arrival, given the past experiences of repatriation," a Western diplomat in Bangkok said Sunday.
Antonio Guterres, the head of the UN refugee agency, urged Thailand on Thursday to call off the expulsions, saying they would "set a very grave international example".