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Vietnam Accuses U.S. of Interference

April 4, 2001

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) _ Vietnam accused the United States on Tuesday of interfering in its domestic affairs by offering possible asylum to 24 Vietnamese hill tribespeople who fled into neighboring Cambodia.

``We demand the U.S. side immediately stop this interfering action,″ Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh said.

Thanh insisted that the 24 people were ``completely not political refugees″ and said Vietnam’s Communist government had asked Cambodia to return them immediately to avoid setting a precedent that would encourage other Vietnamese to flee in hopes of being resettled in third countries.

On Saturday, Cambodian authorities allowed U.N. officials to meet with the 24 Vietnamese for the first time since they were arrested in Cambodia after crossing the border two weeks ago. Representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees hope to determine whether they were fleeing persecution in Vietnam.

The group was arrested in the remote Cambodian province of Mondulkiri where they traveled after Vietnamese security forces crushed protests by thousands of hill tribespeople last month in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

The protests, in the capitals of Daklak and Gia Lai provinces, were reportedly triggered by land grievances, poverty, and restrictions on the practice of the Protestant religion, followed by many of the minority groups. Such anti-government protests are extremely rare, and have shaken Vietnamese authorities.

The Communist government harbors a deep distrust of the hill tribe minorities, some of whom fought alongside American forces during the Vietnam War.

Cambodian officials have said they have not decided whether to send the 24 people back to Vietnam.

The United States said it may offer the group asylum if they are likely to be persecuted for political reasons if returned to Vietnam.

Thanh pledged that Vietnam would not charge the 24 people and would ``create conditions for them to integrate into the community.″

``The U.S. statement that it may allow these people to seek asylum clearly shows the U.S. intention of abusing these people to interfere in the internal affairs of Vietnam,″ she said.

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