By GRANT PECK, Associated Press Writer - Mon Jun 6,11:31 AM ET
BANGKOK, Thailand - The Laotian government released three of four U.S. activists detained after witnessing the surrender of Hmong rebels — Vietnam War-era allies of the United States — and deported them Monday to Thailand, one of the freed activists said.
Ed Szendrey of Oroville, Calif., who was released along with his wife, Georgie, and Hmong-American Nhia Yang, told The Associated Press he was elated at being freed but concerned for Hmong- American Sia Cher Vang, the group's driver, who remained in jail.
The three were freed by Laotian authorities Monday afternoon in the capital, Vientiane, and escorted across the nearby border with Thailand by U.S. consular officials.
Laos Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chantalangsy said before their release that the three would be deported for the sake of good relations with the United States.
The Szendreys and the others rendezvoused Saturday with a group of 170 Hmong women, children and old men in the central province of Xieng Khouang just before they trekked out of the jungle to turn themselves in to authorities.
Szendrey, who spoke from the village by telephone, said the group had been welcomed by the local police chief — also a Hmong — and did not encounter any soldiers.
"We were doing really fine there with the local authorities," he said Monday.
On their way back, however, the bus on which they were traveling was stopped at a military checkpoint, and the four were seized, along with their satellite phone and cameras and film, said Szendrey, a retired investigator for the Butte County, Calif., district attorney's office.
The Hmong, advised by the CIA, fought on behalf of a pro-American government during the Vietnam War, only to find themselves all but abandoned after their communist enemies, the Pathet Lao, won a long civil war in 1975.
More than 300,000 Laotian refugees, mostly Hmong, fled after the takeover, with many resettling in the United States. Thousands stayed behind, some adjusting to the new hard-line regime and others staying in the jungle, where they faced continuing attacks.
The Szendreys several years ago helped found the U.S.-based Fact Finding Commission, which sought to publicize the plight of the Hmong, who have been persecuted by Laos' communist government.
Szendrey said he and the others were not mistreated in custody. But he described their situation as "very uncomfortable," saying they were interrogated on their first night in detention about the commission's work and accused of fomenting trouble.
"We were up front with them," he said. "We told them we brought some food and baby clothes for the Hmong coming from the jungle."
He said he was asked him to sign a paper in the Lao language which he believed was some sort of confession.
"I refused," he said, adding that the atmosphere improved Sunday when a general, whom he was told was the minister in charge of national security, came to talk to them.
The general told them they needed a special visa to engage in such activities. The Americans entered the country on tourist visas.
When the U.S. embassy was informed of their detention Monday, they learned that they were accused of "somehow having done something that caused internal dissension by embarrassing the government," Szendrey said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong, who accused them of coming to create trouble for Laos, told the AP that the ministry called the U.S. ambassador Monday to ask for cooperation in preventing similar incidents in the future.
Saturday's surrender of 170 people was expected to be followed by thousands of others, winding up the Hmongs' decades in the wilderness.
Szendrey said earlier that although the plan to surrender was voluntary, it was made in desperation because several pockets of the Hmong, pursued by government troops, believed they would starve if they did not turn themselves in.