Laos denied the U.N. immediate access to 4,500 ethnic Hmong who were forcibly repatriated from Thailand, saying Wednesday it would "complicate" matters but that international observers could visit later.
Thailand deported the Hmong on Monday in a massive 24-hour military operation, ignoring pleas by the U.N., the United States and others that fear they could face persecution by the Lao government _ particularly a group of 158 Hmong already recognized as refugees by the United Nations.
The repatriation all but ended the Hmong's three-decade search for asylum following their alliance with the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
The United States and rights groups have said the Hmong could be in danger if returned to the country that they fought, unsuccessfully, to keep from falling into communist hands in the 1970s.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees issued a statement late Tuesday saying it had formally asked the Lao government for access to the Hmong. It also called on the Thai government to make public the details of assurances it received from Laos regarding the treatment of the returnees.
Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing said it is too soon for visitors but that international observers would be welcome at a later date.
"If they came right now, it would complicate the process of resettlement," he told The Associated Press. "But after they are settled in their permanent place, then visitors will be allowed."
The Hmong were being held in a temporary camp where an interview process was under way to determine where they want to live, he said. For those without homes, two villages have been created, and each family is eligible for a house and a plot of land.
Among the Hmong deported was a group of 4,350 from a camp in Thailand's northern Phetchabun province that the U.N. refugee agency was never allowed to visit. A smaller group of 158 Hmong at a detention center in nearby Nong Khai had already been identified as "being in need of protection," the U.N. agency said in its statement.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Tuesday that the U.S., Canada, Australia and The Netherlands had offered to resettle the 158 refugees and it was now up to those countries and the Lao government to work out their future.
The United States and Australia both issued statements expressing concern about the deportation and called on Laos to allow U.N. access.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said Thailand has no reason to doubt pledges by Laos that the Hmong would be well-treated.
"In the past few years, we have sent more than 3,000 Lao Hmong back to their country _ 18 times before _ and there was no problem," he said.