WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Laos on Thursday to mount a transparent investigation into the disappearance of a prominent activist who rights groups believe has been taken into government custody.
"We are deeply concerned about the well-being of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared one month ago," Clinton said in a statement.
"We call upon the Lao government to pursue a transparent investigation of this incident and to do everything in its power to bring about an immediate and safe return home to his family."
Clinton's personal statement represented a significant increase in pressure from Washington over the case of Somphone, who rights group say disappeared on December 15 in the Lao capital, Vientiane, after being stopped by police while driving his Jeep from the development agency he founded.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement last month that circumstances surrounding the case including security camera footage indicate Lao authorities took Somphone into custody although Lao officials have said they do not know where he is or who was responsible for his disappearance.
Somphone, 60, received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2005 and worked to promote education and development in poverty-stricken Laos. The award is often described as Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
The landlocked communist country has little tolerance for dissent and last month expelled the director of a Swiss development organization for criticizing the country's one-party regime in a letter to donors.
The Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last month that traffic police had stopped Sombath in the course of routine checks but unknown men had taken him away shortly after that.
"His disappearance has generated a tremendous amount of concern from his family, friends and colleagues around the world. We urge his immediate return home and send our thoughts and prayers to his family and loved ones," Clinton said.
Clinton last July became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos since 1955, spending four hours there meeting officials and highlighting the threat of unexploded ordinance left over from U.S. bombing associated with the Vietnam war.
(Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)