Vietnam confirms ethnic unrest in highlands

Vietnam confirmed on Monday that there had been unrest in two Central Highlands provinces at the weekend, breaking its silence over a protest that echoed widespread ethnic minority uprisings three years ago.

"In the past few days several extremists in some locations of the provinces of Daklak and Gia Lai, along with agitation from outside, have taken actions to disturb the public order," a statement from the Foreign Ministry said.

The ministry did not provide figures on the protesters -- which residents say may have numbered in the thousands in one city -- but said authorities had stabilised the situation and that the provinces were now "under normal condition".

The protesters destroyed public buildings and property in some communes, the ministry said.

No independent confirmation could be obtained on the situation as Vietnam quickly slapped a ban on all foreigners, including tourists, from visiting the highlands, which are home to Vietnam's coffee belt.

A Vietnam Airlines reservation clerk said on Monday she could not make any bookings for foreigners on flights to Buon Ma Thuot or Pleiku, the only two airports in the highlands.

When asked why, she said "for political reasons", declining to elaborate. She said she did not know when the ban might be lifted.


On Saturday, a group of hill tribespeople drove into Buon Ma Thuot city, the capital of Daklak province, and massed outside the provincial government office, local residents said.

The Montagnard Foundation, an overseas group which says it represents some of the hill tribespeople, said they were Protestants protesting during Easter against alleged repression by authorities.

Major unrest in the highlands in February 2001 over religious and property rights was crushed by Hanoi and the region has since been under a blanket of security. Diplomats and foreign journalists must get clearance to travel to the area.

A number of people with minor injuries were treated on Saturday at the General Hospital in Daklak, an official at the facility said on Sunday.

The U.S. embassy said a delegation of its officials was prevented by police from entering Buon Ma Thuot on Saturday. Their car was stopped coming from southern Ho Chi Minh City.

The embassy warned U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Daklak province and on Monday broadened the advisory to include Gia Lai province.

The protest was not reported in state-controlled local media, which instead carried articles and television footage of highland residents peacefully celebrating Easter in churches.

Vietnam's foreign ministry repeated a denial that the government oppresses certain religions.

"We strongly reject all the views to distort with bad will the so-called 'national and religious repression' in Vietnam," it said.