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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tribal fighters head for refuge in U.S.A.

Tribal fighters head for refuge in U.S.A.

Montagnards End 20 Year War With Hanoi

O'WEI, Mondolkiri Province-A rag-tag army of lightly armed but highly respected tribal

guerrillas ended their long hit-and-run war against the Vietnamese government Oct.

10 in a remote forest clearing in eastern Cambodia.

The tough Montagnard fighters of FULRO-the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed

Races-and their families, 398 people in all, were shuttled out of their idyllic but

harsh sanctuary in Mondolkiri province.

They are now in Phnom Penh under heavy U.N. security and are being processed by U.S.

officials for resettlement in the west.

U.S. officials in Cambodia say that a flurry of high-level behind the scenes political

maneuvering in recent weeks has bypassed normal refugee channels and the entire group

is almost guaranteed to be resettled in the United States-most likely in North Carolina.

One American diplomat in Phnom Penh said that the U.S. government had been ''cutting

corners left and right to expedite their going to the U.S. It is almost unheard of.''

He said that the streamlined processing of the refugees was motivated by a "moral

responsibility'' that the U.S. had to the fighters.

Their forgotten war began in 1964 and picked up steam when they were armed and trained

by the United States to fight the Vietnamese communists.

FULRO leaders say that the Americans fell back on a promise to give them continued

covert support after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. The betrayal was just one of many

over the last several decades.

Once promised an autonomous state in the central highlands of Vietnam by the French

colonial powers, the Montagnards-at one point 10,000 fighters strong-fought alongside

various regimes who promised to help them achieve their goal of self rule.

Abandoned or betrayed by all, the Montagnards carried on their struggle without foreign

assistance after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, suffering heavy losses in the

late 1970s.

Before boarding six massive M1-26 helicopters, the last 15 armed guerrillas of a

force of about 250 ceremonially handed over their aged but immaculately-maintained

weapons to Uruguayan soldiers of Cambodia's U.N. peacekeeping force.

Col. Leonel Milone of Uruguay said the guerrillas had brought in 194 weapons and

2,567 rounds of ammunition. The army's largest weapon-the M-79 grenade launcher-had

one remaining round of ammunition.

Colonel Y Peng Ayun, the leader of FULRO, then handed their flag to Milone and renounced

the struggle against Hanoi.

''We are very sad about leaving here,'' Ayun told the Post. ''We do not want to go

to a free nation, but we have no choice now. It is my responsibility to help my people

who have suffered terribly under the Vietnamese communists. We will become refugees

now, but we will never give up our struggle to liberate our Montagnard nation from

the Vietnamese communists. We will come back when we can get assistance from the

free countries because it is our duty''

After meeting three weeks ago with a Montagnard leader from the United States that

they had lost touch with, the group agreed to surrender their arms to the United

Nations and leave the jungles of Cambodia for refuge in the West.

"This is the end of this chapter of the struggle,'" said Pierre K'Briuh,

who came to Cambodia in late September after learning from the Post that his compatriots

had been located in remote Khmer Rouge-controlled forests.

He said that Vietnam's Montagnard leadership, some of whom escaped to live in the

west, had lost all contact with the FULRO combatants since 1980.

FULRO posed a fresh problem for UNTAC after the devout Christian Montagnards emerged

from the jungle in June to introduce themselves to French troops at a U.N. cantonment

site near the Vietnamese border.

The group, at war with Hanoi, was also under threat from Phnom Penh, which captured

five FULRO soldiers and turned them over to Vietnam, where they are in prison. FULRO

made a written request for U.N. protection, later seeking refugee status and resettlement

in the United States or France.

While Uruguayan UNTAC soldiers based in the area have been given high marks for the

extra effort and humanitarian concern they put into working with the Montagnards,

the U.N. bureaucracies in Phnom Penh have come under fire for their slow response

to the fighters' request for help.

For nearly three months, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials ignored

the pleas from FULRO and UNTAC soldiers based in the area, only dispatching their

officials to meet with the guerrillas after the group received widespread publicity

in August.

UNHCR has since issued an order forbidding all media access to the FULRO combatants,

and warning FULRO leaders that talking to the press could result in the group being

forcibly repatriated to Vietnam, where they would face certain prison.

The fighters and their families left behind four villages of wooden and bamboo huts,

along with simple open-air Catholic and Evangelical churches.

In the final days before their evacuation, Budar Su Khong, 52, an Evangelical preacher,

read sermons in the forest honoring the jungle and reading biblical passages of the

Israelites' exodus to the promised land.

Y Bhong Rcam, 47, spoke over a jungle campfire the night before UNTAC was to arrive

and they were to abandon their base.

''I have been in the jungle more than 20 years already," he said. "It has

been very hard duty, and many of us have died, so it is very sad to go to America.

I can only worry about my country now-how can I save my people."

The U.N. blue berets paid high tribute to the spirit, hospitality, dedication and

military skills of the guerrillas.

The men, who went out on patrol every day, relied on "a cross between American

special forces tactics and their own bush savvy," said Australian signalman

Fraser McKenzie.



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