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A bus loaded with 24 ethnic Montagnards departs for Vietnam yesterday evening. ADHOC

Group of Montagnards heads back to Vietnam

Twenty-four Montagnards are set to return to Vietnam today, becoming the first group to volunteer for repatriation since the government last month ordered the asylum seekers to leave of their own volition or be forcibly expelled, officials said.

Chea Bunthoeun, Ratanakkiri province’s deputy police chief, said yesterday evening that the group had arrived in Banlung town, where they would spend the night before returning to Vietnam this morning.

“The Interior Ministry’s officers and UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] have taken the 24 Montagnards from Phnom Penh to Ratanakkiri,” he said. “They volunteered to return to their own country.”

He declined to make any further comment.

The 24 were among more than 200 Montagnards – a predominantly Christian indigenous group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – to have fled to Cambodia over the past year alleging persecution.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, who last month announced that if the unregistered Montagnard asylum seekers did not leave within three months they would be kicked out, said he was not aware of the group’s scheduled return.

UNHCR did not respond to requests for comment.

Last month, the agency said that it had been “approached before and after the announcement” by asylum seekers wishing to be repatriated. In June, 12 Montagnards were voluntarily repatriated.

Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said a convoy of government and UNHCR vehicles had escorted the group of returnees into the province.

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