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Vietnam Accuses Ethnic Christian Grp Of Staging Uprising

April 19, 2004 12:11 p.m.

HANOI (AP)--Vietnam's government on Monday accused ethnic minority Christians of attempting to mount an uprising to create an independent state during mass protests in the Central Highlands earlier this month.

The minorities, collectively called Montagnards, attacked commune headquarters, kidnapped local officials and hung up banners demanding the establishment of a "Dega" state, Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said in an unusually lengthy statement.

"It was clear that these were acts aimed at causing public disorder, dividing the people of different ethnic groups in the Central Highlands, damaging the great national unity and undermining Vietnam's territorial integrity," he said.

State-controlled media have reported that two protesters were killed during the April 10-11 demonstrations that drew thousands of ethnic minority villagers in three provinces in the Central Highlands. Another 80 police officers and soldiers were injured in the clashes, state media said.

However, the Foreign Ministry hasn't corroborated those reports. Foreign journalists and diplomats have been banned from visiting the area.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused Vietnam of massive crackdowns on ethnic minorities prior to the Easter weekend prayer protests, in which villagers demanded religious freedoms and the return of confiscated tribal lands. The rights group alleged that police beat and shot protesters to death and that many Montagnards, who are mostly Protestant, went into hiding out of fear they would be killed.

Vietnam has denied the allegations and on Monday said it responded appropriately to the protesters.

"In face of such violent acts of the extremists, law protection forces and people had to take defensive acts, which inevitably led to clashes," Dung said. "A number of people were injured and hospitalized."

Hundreds of people were detained after the protests, but most have since been released, said Pham The Duyet, president of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, the Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper reported Monday.

"We arrested several ring leaders and will handle them in accordance with the laws," Duyet was quoted as saying.

Le Dung's statement blamed the uprising on the South Carolina-based Montagnard Foundation. It said the group incited the protests and spread rumors among the Montagnards that U.N. airplanes would relocate people overseas. It also alleged that money was offered to entice people to join the protests and that those who declined were threatened.

In 2001, similar massive demonstrations broke out in the Central Highlands, and a subsequent government crackdown prompted a major exodus into Cambodia. Nearly 1,000 Montagnards were later resettled in the U.S.

Vietnamese officials have accused the Montagnard Foundation of organizing the demonstrations both this year and in 2001. The group, founded by former members of a group of anti-communist Montagnard fighters allied with the U.S. during the Vietnam War, advocates ethnic minority rights.