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Exiled resistance leader denies supporting Laos bombings

DATELINE: WASHINGTON, July 26

Exiled resistance leader General Vang Pao flatly denied Wednesday claims by the Laos government that he plotted a string of bomb blasts which shattered the tranquility of the country's sleepy capital, Vientiane.

The general, who appeared at a forum at the US Congress to accuse the government of a string of atrocities against ethnic Hmong people, described the claims attributed to the Lao ambassador to Thailand as "ridiculous."

"I've been accused by the communist Lao government for the instability, conflict and recent bombings inside the country. This is ridiculous," he said.

"I want to deny the accusation that Hmong are responsible for the recent bomb explosions in Laos."

At least five explosions have rocked central Laos in the last three months, two caused little damage, but up to 29 people were injured on May 29 when a bomb ripped through an indoor market in Vientiane.

In March, a dozen foreign tourists were injured in a restaurant in the city and a bombing in April killed two local people.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks but some residents and foreign diplomats in Vientiane have attributed the blasts to a business dispute or infighting within the secretive communist regime.

Vientiane's ambassador to Thailand was quoted by the Bangkok Post earlier this month as saying the bombings were the work of US-based partners of Hmong insurgents.

"Vientiane believes the spate of bombings is the work of foreign-based Hmong led by former resistance leader General Vang Pao," Laos ambassador to Thailand Hiem Phommachanh told the paper.

"With communities inside Laos firmly organised, clashes or problems are rare unless there is external support ... it is logical to assume General Vang Pao, an ethnic Hmong, was behind the bombings," the ambassador said.

He said Vang Pao was the only former resistance leader still criticising the Lao government.

Hmong insurgents -- remnants of a guerrilla army trained by the CIA during the Vietnam War -- have been battling Laos' government intermittently since the communists took over the country in 1975 and toppled the royal family.

Laos has claimed that Hmong insurgents are carrying out arms smuggling operations funded by Hmong-Americans across the porous Thai-Lao border.

But Vang Pao told AFP the only money being sent fromm the United States was to support people trapped in a cycle of deprivation by the country's creeping economy.

"The only money that is being sent is to people's relatives and families who are living in poverty," he said.

Vang Pao, one of the leaders of the CIA-trained Vietnam War-era Hmong army, was one of around 300,000 people who fled Laos when the communists took over, and retains a sizable following among Hmong exiles in California, Minnesota and several other US states.

During his speech, he claimed that the Lao government was inflicting a cruel regime of imprisonment, torture and murder on its citizens, and called upon the United States and other Western nations to isolate the government.

Laos has experienced a series of recent disruptions, including an unprecedented student demonstration and upsurge in the Hmong insurgency as well as the bomb blasts, which have challenged the tight control of the ruling communist party.

In the latest episode, a group of Lao rebels clashed with government troops earlier this month and fled over the Thai border.

General Vang Pao was speaking at a forum of nongovernmental organisations and Lao exiles called to exert pressure on the United States government and Congress to outlaw the Lao government.

Several motions have passed through the Congress in recent months in support of the campaign, sponsored by congressmen who have large numbers of exiles in their districts.

Attempts to grant trade privileges to Laos have always foundered on congressional opposition.