HUAY NAM KHAO, Thailand, Dec 28 (Reuters) - Thailand expelled thousands of ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers from a refugee camp on Monday before their planned deportation to Laos, sparking angry criticism from the United States and Europe.
About 5,000 troops armed with batons and shields were sent to a mountain camp in Huay Nam Khao, 300 km (186 miles) north of Bangkok to clear the 4,400 Hmong, who say they face oppression by Laos’ communist government if sent back.
There was no violence, said Thai Colonel Thana Charuvat, who is in charge of the repatriation. Some 300 Hmong who had initially refused to leave the camp had agreed to end their resistance after several hours of negotiations, he said.
Reporters were barred from the camp during the operation and no independent confirmation was immediately available.
More than 4,000 had already been taken out of the camp in army trucks on the way to an immigration centre in Nong Khai bordering Laos, prior to being handed over to Lao authorities, the colonel told reporters.
Known as America’s "forgotten allies", the Hmong sided with the United States during the Vietnam War and many fled Laos in 1975 when the communist Pathet Lao took power. Tens of thousands have since been resettled in the U.S.
The United States said the Thai operation was a "serious violation of the international humanitarian principles that Thailand has long been known for championing".
France said it "deplored" the Thai decision and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urged Bangkok to stop the deportations.
Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said it was deeply dismayed.
Lao government spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing said the concerns were groundless and the Hmong being repatriated were illegal migrants who would be housed in resettlement villages.
Thailand also regards the Hmong in Huay Nam Khao as economic migrants with no claim to refugee status. Thailand and Laos reached an agreement in March to repatriate the Hmong.
Rights groups and UNHCR say some of the Hmong could qualify for refugee status and should not be sent back. Thailand has denied UNHCR requests to visit the camp to assess their status.
Thailand fears that by facilitating their resettlement in a third country, it could encourage more illegal migrants.
Thailand has been a key transit point for more than 1.5 million refugees from Myanmar and the Indochina region. (Additional reporting by Sinthana Kosotprasit in Bangkok, Sophie Hardach in Paris, Robert Evans in Geneva and Mia Shanley in Stockholm; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Alex Richardson)