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HEADLINE: Top Laotian army commander visits Vietnam amid mounting unrest

DATELINE: HANOI, June 16

Agence France Presse, June 16, 2000

A top Laotian army commander arrived here Friday for a five-day visit amid what diplomats say is mounting Vietnamese military intervention in its small communist neighbour against ethnic minority rebels.

The visit by the head of the Laotian army's political department, General Khamphuong Chanthaphomma, is aimed at strengthening the "special cooperation" between the two armies, a Vietnamese defence ministry official told AFP.

Khamphuong went straight into talks with his Vietnamese counterpart General Pham Thanh Ngan and Defence Minister General Pham Van Tra, the official said, asking not to be named.

The Laotian commander is due to spend the weekend visiting Vietnamese army units in the central highlands before holding talks on Monday with communist party general secretary Le Kha Phieu -- the number one in Vietnam's hierarchy and himself a former head of the army's political department.

Khamphuong's arrival here comes hot on the heels of a week-long visit by a Laotian delegation led by a top official from the troubled province of Xiang Khouang, where diplomats say Vietnamese troops have intervened against Hmong minority insurgents.

The delegation, led by the province's communist party deputy secretary Sivonya Yangyongyia, left on Tuesday after holding talks with the powerful external relations commission of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

The Laotian army has increasingly been losing control of Xiang Khouang in the face of mounting losses at the hands of the rebels, diplomats say.

The whole province, including the popular tourist attraction of the Plain of Jars, is now closed to all foreigners, including diplomats, as is the Xaisomboun special zone between it and the capital.

Western diplomats told AFP late last month that they had seen military transports carrying Vietnamese troops on the streets of the Lao capital as the authorities were forced to secure a renewed military intervention by its key ally in a bid to regain control.

Massive military support from Vietnam in the late 1970s and 1980s largely eliminated the remnants of an anti-communist militia recruited among the Hmong by the Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War, although low-level attacks continued through the 1990s.

Hmong emigre sources in the United States told AFP that the defection with their weapons of a number of previously pro-Vientiane Hmong units recruited by the Vietnamese had permitted the upsurge in rebel attacks in recent months.

The secretive communist authorities in Hanoi and Vientiane both strongly deny that Vietnamese troops have again intervened in Laos.