Thailand's prime minister sought Thursday to quiet international concerns about the possible expulsion of 4,000 ethnic Hmong to Laos, amid objections from the U.S. and human rights groups who fear they could face persecution.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declined to say when the Hmong would be deported but indicated it could happen soon.
"We will act according to the law, and we will be very careful," Abhisit told reporters. "We have measures to take care of this without human rights violations."
The Hmong, an ethnic minority group from Laos' rugged mountains, are being held at a camp in northern Phetchabun province.
They say they fear political persecution in Laos, where many Hmong fought on the side of a pro-U.S. Lao government in the 1960s and 1970s before the communist takeover of their country in 1975.
Laos in the past has denied the Hmong are Lao citizens, describing them as Thailand's problem. Thai authorities say the group of Hmong in Phetchabun are not legitimate refugees and have entered the country illegally. The two countries reached an agreement earlier this year to repatriate the group.
"According to the agreement, we will send them back at the proper time," Abhisit said.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern for the Hmong on Thursday, noting that in the past the Thai government has said that many Hmong are in need of protection. In a statement, acting spokesman Mark Toner said to repatriate such people would violate international principles. Toner said the U.S. has raised the issue many times with Bangkok, most recently this week during the visit of a senior State Department official.
In the past week, the army has sent dozens of large trucks to the camp and thousands of soldiers, according to reports in Thai media and phone interviews with residents in the area who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Nine U.S. senators sent a letter to Abhisit to express concern about the possible repatriation and criticize the government's screening process to determine refugee status, saying it was led by the military and lacked a civilian presence.
"We believe that the lack of transparency in the screening and repatriation process only exacerbates these difficulties and heightens international concern regarding these populations," said the letter obtained Thursday and dated Dec. 17. "We strongly urge your government ... to conduct a transparent screening process consistent with international standards."
The letter was signed by seven Democratic senators _ Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, Barbara Boxer of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Minnesota senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken _ and two Republicans _ Richard Lugar of Indiana and Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski.
Diplomats, rights groups and the U.N. refugee agency, which has been denied access to the camp, say they believe some of the Hmong could qualify as refugees.