KUANTAN, Malaysia (AP) _ A group of 317 red-eyed Vietnamese refugees were hustled onto a Malaysian ship today for a voyage back to their communist homeland, ending years of chosen exile in their search for a better life.

They were the first of 1,655 Vietnamese refugees being forcibly sent home under a U.N. program. The refugees fled to Malaysia after the Vietnam War ended in 1975 with North Vietnam taking over the U.S.-backed South.

In a smooth operation unmarred by protests or violence, the heavily guarded refugees were taken by bus from their camp outside the Malaysian capital to a naval base in this resort town.

One by one, the refugees were taken off the buses and searched before being led up the ship's gangplank and into the cavernous hold where they would stay during the 30-hour voyage.

Malaysian and Red Cross officials passed metal detectors over the refugees and took away all hard objects, including hair clips, belts, rosaries, crucifixes, mascara sticks and jewelry.

``We want to make sure they don't harm themselves or others,'' said a Red Cross official who collected the belongings. The refugees could reclaim them upon reaching Vietnam early Saturday.

One woman wailed and pushed away female guards who tried to take away her decorated plastic hair clip. She was the only one allowed into the ship with any jewelry.

The only overt protest came from the last man to be hustled onto the ship. He shouted: ``I am an army veteran and don't want to go back.''

The boat people say they fear persecution if they return. Previously, they rioted twice at their camp to oppose the repatriation plan. But the United Nations says the refugees are actually fleeing poverty rather than oppression.

``I am scared. I was in the South (Vietnamese) army,'' said 45-year-old refugee Lu Biah Sinh. ``I don't know what they will do when I land there.''

Of the 3,128 Vietnamese refugees left in Malaysia, about 1,500 have agreed to return voluntarily. Of them, 216 boarded airplanes for Ho Chi Minh City at the Kuala Lumpur airport today.

``I was a wood cutter in Cam Ranh. When I go back I will work hard,'' said Ngo Duc Khanh, who was returning willingly. ``Of course, if I have a chance I will try to go to America. Life there is better.''

A second group of refugees will be sent home in May; the rest are to leave Malaysia by June 30, when the camp is to be closed.

The first Vietnamese boat people arrived here on April 4, 1975. Ultimately Malaysia took in 252,461 Vietnamese, most of whom have been resettled in the United States, Australia, Canada and other Western nations.