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Hmong-American still missing after vanishing en route to Laos

BY: FREDERIC J. FROMMER, Associated Press Writer
DATELINE: WASHINGTON - August 5, 2000, Saturday

Charlie Vang left Minneapolis last November, telling his wife he was taking a trip to Thailand. Two months later, witnesses said, Vang was thrown from a boat heading across the Mekong River into Laos, after a gunfire attack from Laos.

Despite an investigation by U.S. officials, Vang, 45, has never been found. When the boats returned to Thailand after the attack, the only sign of him was his U.S. passport, which was found in one of the boats.

Vang's fellow travelers - three Americans and three permanent U.S. residents - were arrested in Thailand and charged with carrying concealed weapons, among other violations. They spent a month in jail and were then released without explanation by Thai authorities, according to the State Department.

Vang was born in Laos and comes from the Hmong ethnic group, a highland people in Laos that aided the CIA during the Vietnam War. His disappearance comes amid a rising Hmong insurgency against the communist government in Laos.

The incident is reminiscent of one last year involving two men who, like Vang, were Hmong-Americans.

On April 19, 1999, Michael Vang of Fresno, Calif., and Houa Ly of Appleton, Wis., made the same voyage across the Mekong River, and have not been seen since. Relatives and some members of Congress suspect the Laotian government kidnapped, imprisoned and possibly killed the men; Laotian authorities deny any knowledge of their whereabouts. Two joint U.S.-Laotian investigations failed to find them.

A spokesman for the Laotian Embassy in Washington, Mai Sayavongs, said he had no information about the disappearance of Charlie Vang.

In both cases, the reason for attempting to cross the border is unclear. But Houa Ly's aiding of American pilots during the Vietnam War, and the weapons charges against Charlie Vang's compatriots fueled speculation that both men were there to aid Hmong rebels in Laos.

Charlie Vang's wife, Mee Xiong, said her husband left for Thailand in November for a vacation to visit relatives and told her he'd be back in a couple of months. The last time she heard from him was Jan. 26, three days before his disappearance.

Mee Xiong has been running her husband's St. Paul, Minn., business, Lucky's Temporary Services, during his absence. They have four children, ages 13 to 19.

"I don't know if he's still alive," said Xiong. "I don't know what to do right now. I have my job, and my children - everything is hard for me. I'm very worried about my husband, because he is a good man, and he is working hard in the United States."

Chong Feng Vang of St. Paul, who was in the other boat, said the men went to Laos to visit some of his cousins, and he denied they were carrying weapons. He said his boat tipped over and he swam back to Thailand, but did not see what happened to Charlie Vang.

Both of Minnesota's senators, Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican Rod Grams, have made inquiries to the State Department, but U.S. officials said they have searched the area and found no trace of Charlie Vang.

On the Net: U.S. State Department: Hmong Universe: