Laos exiles held over plot to oust Communists

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A conspiracy among eleven men in California, all but one Hmong exiles from Laos, to overthrow the communist regime in their home country went under the codename "Operation Popcorn". But, according to US court papers detailing charges against the men, there was nothing flippant about their plot.

They describe how the men, led by the Vang Pao, a 77-year-old former general of the Royal Army of Laos, and a hero among the Hmong, would have begun preparations for their coup last week with the shipment of sophisticated weaponry to the Lao-Thai border.

The documents, first obtained by the Associated Press, reveal a carefully-planned operation with a budget of $28m (£14.2m) to pay for everything from weapons and mercenaries, to the running of a press liaison to relay their message of liberation to Laos and the international community.

It all came apart earlier this month, however, when police began rounding up the men. The eleventh, Dang Vang, was taken into custody on Thursday. They face charges of violating American's Neutrality Act, which forbids citizens from plotting violence against a country with which the US is at peace. The defendants also include a retired California National Guard Lt-Col, Harrison Jack.

Most attention is focused on Vang Pao, a legendary figure among the Hmong for his role in leading a CIA-encouraged Hmong insurgency against the communists in Laos and neighbouring Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam War.

When the US pulled out from south-east Asia in 1975, he and tens of thousands of Hmong fled to the US. About 65,000 live in California and there is a second large Hmong community in Minnesota, while thousands live in a ramshackle refugee camp in Thailand.

The popularity of Vang rested on his promise one day to liberate his country. The uncovering of his coup plan - called "Political Opposition Parties Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation" - or POPCORN - showed he hadn't forgotten.

According to the court papers, Vang was confident of broad support in Laos for a coup, including from former military officers. He foresaw gathering 1,284 battle-ready troops and another 10,000 unarmed opposition party members.

His plan included bombing government buildings, shooting down military aircraft and shutting down transport links. Martial law would have led to the establishment of a temporary government, giving way to elections after two years.

The first shipments of arms were meant to have begun on 12 June. Unbeknownst to the plotters, however, the arms dealer who promised to supply the arms, including stinger missiles, was in fact an agent for the US government.

There have been large Hmong demonstrations in California in support of Vang since his arrest. But if he also expected American backing for his coup, he was evidently mistaken.

"Federal law is without equivocation: you cannot conspire to overthrow a foreign government with whom our nation is at peace," US Attorney McGregor Scott said in a statement announcing the court action. "Many means may be used to effectuate change; committing serious crime, however, is not one."