Hanoi says 40 minority people confess after unrest

HANOI, Vietnam - Forty members of ethnic minorities in Vietnam's central highland province of Kon Tum have given themselves up to authorities and confessed to involvement in demonstrations last month, official media reported.

Monday's Lao Dong (Labour) newspaper said all 40 had "recognised their guilt and the serious consequences caused by reactionary forces."

They also handed in documents showing evidence of a two-year plan of rebellion by a "reactionary group in exile," it said.

The report said local police had uncovered some "underground units" and confiscated documents in various languages promoting the establishment of an autonomous minority state.

It did not give the current status of the 40 people.

Widespread protests occurred among ethnic minority people in the highlands in early February. They were the biggest to hit Vietnam for years and clearly rattled authorities in a country intolerant of open dissent.

Until recently, most unrest was thought to have occurred in the coffee-growing provinces of Gia Lai and Daklak, but official media has since made reference to protests in Kon Tum.

On Saturday, Communist Party ideology chief Huu Tho made reference to ethnic problems in northern mountainous areas.

Local officials have reported 20 arrests in Gia Lai, but said 13 were released after confessing their involvement in the unrest and asking for leniency. Authorities have said they were about 10 more detentions in Daklak province.

During a foreign media visit permitted to Daklak this month, journalists saw arrest warrant notices for 12 tribal people posted in a village in Daklak.

Protestant sources have estimated that as many as 60 pastors and church elders were detained in the highlands, where many ethnic people are Christians.

Official media blamed the protests on land disputes. Church sources say that while many who took part were protestants, they were triggered by minority rights rather than religion.

Vietnamese media has accused a U.S.-based emigre group, the Montagnard Foundation Inc, based in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and led by ethnic emigre Kok Ksor, of organising the protests.

On Monday, the pro-Vietnam prime minister of neighbouring Cambodia, Hun Sen, said 24 minority people who crossed the border saying they were fleeing a crackdown after the unrest would be sent back, despite appeals from rights groups.

Amnesty International on Saturday urged Cambodia to grant asylum to the 24.

Friday's Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People's Army) newspaper quoted two protesters in Gia Lai, one of whom appeared in "exhausted condition," as saying they had been deceived by Kok Ksor. It said they had apologised for the actions and begged for leniency.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department urged Vietnam to give diplomats access to the highlands, saying Americans of minority origin had expressed concern about the wellbeing of relatives.

A report in an official Vietnamese newspaper the same day said Hanoi had called on the United States last month to stop interfering in its affairs over the protests.

03:22 03-26-01

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