Children of Laos tribe 'butchered by soldiers'

Laotian forces have been accused of raping, disembowelling and murdering children belonging to the minority Hmong tribe in a campaign of state-sponsored terror.

Laotian forces have been accused of raping, disembowelling and murdering children belonging to the minority Hmong tribe in a campaign of state-sponsored terror.

The human rights group Amnesty International says that the attacks, allegedly carried out three months ago, constituted war crimes and violations of international humanitarian laws by the Laos government.

The group says it has credible evidence that "scores of civilians, mainly children" were killed by troops or later died from their injuries, lack of medical aid and starvation.

In one incident, up to 40 Laotian soldiers were said to have been responsible for mutilating and killing five children aged from 13 to 16. Four of the victims, who were girls, were "apparently raped before being killed".

The soldiers are said to have found the children, belonging to a community which supposedly supported rebels fighting the country's Marxist government, foraging for food in the jungle. Others in the group managed to escape, but some were wounded by shots fired by troops.

Amnesty maintains that they have received detailed testimony about the assaults and executions from witnesses supported by a videotape of the incident. One witness, who subsequently fled the country, said he heard the children crying and one of the soldiers screaming: "Hmong, your mouth allows you to speak, your vagina allows you to breed." Then the soldier opened fire.

The victims have been named as Mao Lee, 14, her sister Chao Lee, 16; Chi Her, 14; Pang Lor, 14, and Tou Lor, her brother, aged 14. They were all said to have been shot at close range with semi-automatic rifles after being tortured.

Amnesty said in a statement: "The attacks violate the most fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. These rapes and killings constitute war crimes. The Lao authorities must bring to justice those responsible for this atrocity and cease attacks on unarmed civilians.

"There have been increasing concerns over the last two years at an apparent increase in Lao government military activities against rebel groups. Credible sources have reported the deaths of scores of civilians, mainly children, from starvation and injuries sustained during the conflict."

Around 20 Hmong communities, including a large number of women, children and elderly, are believed to be isolated and surrounded by government troops who are accused of pursuing a " shoot on sight" policy.

The Laotian foreign ministry, however, said that the videotape, shot by an ethnic Lao man called Va Char Yang, now living in exile in the United States, could have been deliberately fabricated to use as propaganda by opposition groups in exile.

The Hmong were used by America as the Vietnam war spilled into Laos and Cambodia. The CIA and the Pentagon armed and trained tribesmen who were used against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong as well as the Pathet Lao guerrillas in Laos. After the Americans withdrew as many as a third of the Hmong sought refuge in the US, Australia, France and Thailand. Some of the 300,000 who remained in Laos continued a low-level guerrilla war against the Pathet Lao, which overthrew the Laotian royal family in 1975.

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