Thailand - Thailand expelled thousands of ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers from a refugee camp on Monday before their planned deportation to Laos, despite concerns about their fate.
About 5,000 troops armed with batons and shields were sent to a mountain camp in Huay Nam Khao, 300 km (186 miles) north of Bangkok to clear the 4,400 Hmong, who say they face oppression by Laos' communist government if sent back.
There was no violence, said Thai Colonel Thana Charuvat, who is in charge of the repatriation. Reporters were barred from the camp during the operation.
Some 300 Hmong who had initially refused to leave the camp, including designated leaders, had agreed to end their resistance after several hours of negotiations, he said.
More than 4,000 had already been taken out of the camp in army trucks on the way to an immigration centre in Nong Khai bordering Laos, prior to being handed over to Lao authorities he told reporters.
Known as America's forgotten allies, the Hmong sided with the United States during the Vietnam War and many fled Laos in 1975 when the communist Pathet Lao took power. Tens of thousands have since been resettled in the U.S.
U.S. CRITICISES OPERATION
The United States said the Thai operation was a serious violation of the international humanitarian principles that Thailand has long been known for championing.
In a statement issued on Sunday, state department spokesman Ian Kelly also urged Laos to provide access for international monitors and facilitate resettlement opportunities.
Lao government spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing said those concerns were groundless and the Hmong being repatriated were illegal migrants who would be housed in resettlement villages.
Thailand also regards the Hmong in Huay Nam Khao as economic migrants with no claim to refugee status. Thailand and Laos reached an agreement in March to repatriate the Hmong.
Rights groups and UNHCR say some of the Hmong could qualify for refugee status and should not be sent back. Thailand has denied UNHCR requests to visit the camp to assess their status.
Thailand fears that by facilitating their resettlement in a third country, it could encourage more illegal migrants.
Thailand has been a key transit point for more than 1.5 million refugees from Myanmar and the Indochina region.
(Additional reporting by Sinthana Kosotprasit; Writing and additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Martin Petty and Bill Tarrant)