Thailand sent army troops with shields and batons to evict more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers Monday and send them back to Laos despite strong objections from the U.S. and rights groups who fear they will face persecution.
Under tight security, all 4,371 of the Hmong were loaded onto covered military trucks and driven out of the camp by late afternoon toward buses waiting near the Lao border, Thai authorities said. Journalists kept at a distance from the camp could see many children inside the trucks.
Col. Thana Charuwat said Thai troops "didn't even touch" the Hmong who offered no resistance as they were taken from the camp.
With the eviction under way, the United States called for it to stop.
"The United States strongly urges Thai authorities to suspend this operation," U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement, noting that the United Nations and Thailand in the past had deemed that many of the Hmong in this group were "in need of protection because of the threats they might face in Laos."
The Hmong, an ethnic minority group from Laos' rugged mountains, helped U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. Many Hmong fought under CIA advisers during the so-called "secret war" in Laos before it fell to the communists in 1975.
Since the communist victory, more than 300,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, are known to have fled to Thailand. Most were either repatriated to Laos or resettled in third countries, particularly the United States. Smaller numbers found refuge in France, Australia and Canada.
The Hmong claim they have been persecuted by the Lao government, but Washington has said it has no plans to resettle more of them in the U.S.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, commending the smooth operation Monday, said that Thailand had received "confirmation from the Lao government that these Hmong will have a better life."
The Thai government claims most of the Hmong are economic migrants who entered the country illegally and have no claims to refugee status. The group was being held at an overcrowded camp in northern Thailand that the government wants to close.
Thana, the Thai army's coordinator for the operation, denied an allegation of brutality by one human rights group, which said callers from inside the camp had used their mobile phones to report violence and bloodshed.
"There has been no violence and nobody has been injured," Thana said, noting it was impossible for anyone in the camp to call outside because the military had jammed mobile phone signals.
Thana said 5,000 soldiers, officials and civilian volunteers were involved in the eviction. He said the troops carried no firearms and that their shields and batons met international standards for dealing with situations in which people are being moved against their will.
"There was no resistance from the repatriated Hmong because we used psychological tactics to talk with them, to assure them that they will have a better life in Laos as the Lao government has confirmed," he told reporters.
Journalists and independent observers were barred from the camp and were allowed no closer than a press center about 7 miles (12 kilometers) away.
The Hmong were driven out of the camp in military trucks and were then to be put on 110 buses going to the Thai border town of Nong Khai, and then across to Laos, heading to the Paksane district in the central province of Bolikhamsai, Thana said.
Laos Foreign Ministry spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing rejected international concerns, saying the government has a "humanitarian policy" for resettling the Hmong.
He told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that the group would initially be placed in a temporary shelter and then housed in two "development villages" - in Bolikhamsai province and in Vientiane province - where each family will receive a house and a plot of land that international observers will be welcome to inspect.
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Monday called the deportation "appalling" and a low point for Abhisit's government.
"As a result of what Thailand has done to the Lao Hmong today, Prime Minister Abhisit sinks Thailand's record on contempt for human rights and international law to a new low," said Sunai Phasuk, a Thai representative for Human Rights Watch.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok and Grant Peck in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)