FOCUS / DANGER IN LAOS
US warns of security risks
Laos generates very little attention-grabbing news
and what little it does often involves armed attacks
on locals and foreign tourists. These attacks have
prompted Washington to issue a warning to its
RICHARD S. EHRLICH
The US State Department has issued a warning of increased
security concerns in tiny communist Laos because of deadly,
politically motivated assaults against markets and buses and
"more attacks could occur" endangering Americans.
"In Laos, there have been attacks on public markets,
transportation facilities and all forms of ground transportation,"
the State Department said in a public announcement issued to
advise US citizens of increased security concerns in Laos.
In 1975, Vietnamese-backed Lao communists achieved victory
over US troops and their royalist Lao allies during the Indochina
war, sealing the impoverished nation in a cocoon of stagnation
and human rights abuses.
Today, a handful of die-hard Lao guerrillas sporadically attack
hard and soft targets throughout the lightly populated country,
often killing innocent civilians in a haphazard, quixotic quest to
topple the internationally financed regime.
Most victims are Lao but casualties have involved foreign
tourists and businessmen.
Scattered attacks by "heavily armed groups" have resulted in
bloodshed along the border with Thailand and in the
mountainous north, the State Department said on Monday.
Gangs occasionally attack passenger buses plying quiet, winding
roads -- robbing, killing and escaping with relative ease. Other
assaults involve small explosions in crowded outdoor markets,
killing and maiming passersby.
"More attacks could occur," the State Department said.
"Provinces that are most prominent in reports of attacks are
Xieng Khouang, Luang Prabang, Houaphan, Sayaboury,
Saysomboun Special Zone and north of Vang Vieng in Vientiane
province," it said, listing the most important urban areas and
some traditionally anti-communist rural sectors.
"The Lao government has characterised these attacks as
'banditry', but given the extreme violence of the attacks,
political motives are likely.
"Due to these security concerns, US embassy personnel are not
permitted to travel overland in this area."
Much of the obscure, smouldering, anti-communist insurgency is
fuelled by jingoistic slogans and money provided by minority
ethnic Hmong and other Americans living in the United States.
They inspire several hundred Hmong insurgents who eke out a
perilous survival in jungles, occasionally attacking government
positions but more often trying to stay one step ahead of
security forces intent on rooting them out.
"The Department of State recommends that US citizens avoid
road travel between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, and on
Route 7 from the Route 13 junction to Phonsavan town."
Luang Prabang is the most famous spot in Laos for foreign
tourists who marvel at its exquisite Buddhist temples and
hand-woven silk textiles along the churning Mekong river.
South from Luang Prabang on the highway to Vang Vieng,
however, the route passes through treacherous, hilly jungle
used for hit and run assaults since the early 1970s.
The other deadly zone cited by the State Department is close to
Phonsavan town in the fabled Plain of Jars, which is peppered by
ancient, unexplained stone jugs and dangerous, unexploded US
bombs dropped during the war.
The latest warning coincides with the start of a US interview
process for the possible resettlement in America of thousands of
Lao refugees and their descendants who fled to Thailand to
escape the communist takeover.
This month, Lao refugees who live next to Wat Tham Krabok in
Lop Buri province will receive information about the
resettlement programme. Registration begins next month
through the US embassy in Bangkok.
Most of Wat Tham Krabok's displaced Lao are Hmong and suffer
accusations in Thailand of fomenting bloody revenge attacks on
Laos or smuggling opium and heroin because some Hmong
guerrillas enriched themselves through illegal drug trafficking
during the Indochina war while working alongside the US
Central Intelligence Agency.
Thailand earlier threatened to shift the refugees elsewhere
because they posed a perceived security threat, but the US
resettlement programme was expected to greatly reduce their
* Richard S. Ehrlich is a former UPI correspondent who has reported from Asia for the past 25 years.