Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Cambodian police break up Vietnam refugee protest

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian riot police on Wednesday broke up a protest by ethnic minority asylum seekers against the forced return of over 100 of their people to Vietnam, human rights workers and the United Nations said.

Around 30 Montagnards, the mainly Christian tribespeople from Vietnam's Central Highlands, staged a brief demonstration outside offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Phnom Penh.

But their protest against Wednesday morning's repatriation of 101 Montagnards to Vietnam, where human rights workers say they face persecution, was cut short by the arrival of riot police.

"Some of them got upset about the return of these people to Vietnam and they got out of the (asylum seekers' holding) center," Inna Gladkova, a UNHCR official. "But police escorted them back to the shelter. They are fine now."

Gladkova said the 101 had been sent back to Vietnam after the UNHCR rejected their claims for asylum. Another 541 Montagnards, many of them women and children, are in UNHCR holding centers in Phnom Penh while their claims are processed.

Vietnam's government, accused of rights abuses against the Montagnards who sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War, has given assurances that returnees will not face discrimination.

However, human rights workers said the way Cambodian police went about sending them back did not bode well.

"They dragged them into the trucks," said Naly Pilorge, director of human rights group LICADHO. She said at least three human rights observers had seen police wielding electric batons to force the Montagnards, including women and children, on board.

Phnom Penh police chief Heng Peov denied officers used excessive force. A Reuters television cameraman covering the subsequent protest was forced by police to erase his footage.

Since 2001, well over 1,000 Montagnards have been granted asylum in the United States after fleeing to Cambodia from central Vietnam.

However, there have been consistent reports of Cambodian troops rounding up Montagnards and sending them back for a bounty, leading to accusations Phnom Penh is taking direct orders from its larger neighbor not to admit refugees.

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