PHETCHABUN, Thailand - PHETCHABUN, Thailand (AP) — Thailand sent army troops with shields and batons to evict some 4,000 ethnic Hmong asylum seekers Monday and send them back to Laos despite strong objections from the U.S. and rights groups who fear they will face persecution.
The Thai government claims most of the Hmong are economic migrants who entered the country illegally and have no claims to refugee status, and says it has assurances from Laos that the Hmong will be well-treated.
Hmong tribe members fought during the Vietnam War era on the side of a pro-American government in Laos before it fell to the communists in 1975, and the Hmong claim they have been persecuted by the government ever since.
The Thai army's coordinator for the operation, Col. Thana Charuwat, said 5,000 soldiers, officials and civilian volunteers were involved in the eviction. He said the troops carried no firearms and that their shields and batons met international standards for dealing with situations in which people are being moved against their will.
Two dozen trucks with about 20 soldiers each could be seen heading toward the refugee camp early Monday. A large contingent of troops already were inside the sealed-off camp. Journalists and independent observers were barred from the camp and were allowed no closer than a press center about 7 miles (12 kilometers) away.
The army hoped to complete the operation within 24 hours, Thana said Monday, adding that 2,100 of the Hmong had agreed to leave voluntarily and the army was trying to persuade the rest.
The Hmong were to be put on buses going to the Thai border town of Nong Khai, and then across to Laos, heading to the Paksane district in the central province of Bolikhamsai, Thana said.
There was no resistance about an hour into the operation, Thana said.
Human rights groups had expressed fear that the Hmong would resist, as they have during smaller-scale repatriations, and that the eviction could turn violent.
The United States and human rights groups have said some of the Hmong could qualify for refugee status and should not be sent back. State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that to repatriate such people would "imperil the well-being of many individuals" and violate international principles.
"As a result of what Thailand has done to the Lao Hmong today, Prime Minister Abhisit sinks Thailand's record on contempt for human rights and international law to a new low," said Sunai Phasuk, a Thai representative for Human Rights Watch.
In recent days, troops had confiscated mobile phones and jammed mobile phone signals inside the camp, complicating efforts to monitor the deportation, Sunai said.
"It never happens smoothly," Sunai said. "If the Hmong resist it and there is an eruption of violence, the army may react in full force."
Laos has in the past denied the Hmong are Lao citizens, describing them as Thailand's problem, though Bangkok says Laos has agreed to take this group back.
"We have assurances from the top level of Laos that these people will be safe and sound," Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.