The arrest of two foreign journalists and a US citizen in Laos earlier this month has thrown a spotlight on the remnants of a once US-backed army still battling Laos's Communist government - three decades after the Vietnam War officially ended.
Recruited in the 1960s by the CIA to fight Vietnamese incursions into a landlocked country known to US pilots as "the other theater," the rebel army swelled to 40,000 men. Many fighters and their extended families - mostly ethnic Hmong - fled Laos after the Communist Pathet Lao seized control in 1975. Some 100,000 Hmong later resettled in the US and were given generous welfare support as a reward for their role in a shadowy war. [Editor's note: The original version of this story included an inaccurate statement about who was operating in Laos during the Vietnam War.]
But a ragtag force of perhaps a few thousand, including the grandchildren of the US proxy army, are still holding out against the Laotian Army in mountains northeast of the capital, Vientiane. Officials dismiss them as "bandits" who need to be brought to justice. But foreign observers who have traveled to Hmong-held areas say that far from being a credible threat, the rebels are poorly armed, in bad health - and focused largely on holding their own in the face of a government that wants to wipe them out.
"They're just basically trying to stay alive. They're fighting for survival," says Philip Blenkinsop, a British photographer who visited in January. "They talk about political ideology ... but it's just a line they've had for so long. The reality is that if they don't pick up their weapons and fight, they're going to be killed."
For Laos's secretive rulers, the publicity generated by the arrests is far from welcome.
Last month, Belgian photographer Thierry Falise and a French cameraman, Vincent Reynaud, went to report on the plight of the group, accompanied by Naw Karl Mua, a Hmong-American pastor from St. Paul, Minn., who helped arrange their clandestine visit.
When they emerged from the jungle 10 days later, accompanied by Hmong fighters, the group ran into an Army patrol. Officials say the resulting firefight killed a village guard, making the foreigners potential accessories to murder.
"I don't know what they do outside Laos," Foreign Minister Somsavath Lengsavath told the Associated Press, "but in Laos they were not journalists, so we have to take ... action ... in accordance with Lao law for murder."
Diplomats say they are hopeful the government may simply expel the two journalists, who entered the country as tourists, and the US pastor. Press groups who have taken up the case say it would be absurd to lay murder charges against reporters who witnessed a battle, given the media's role in covering conflicts.
"Everyone is waiting now for the Laotian government to finish its investigation of what happened" during the firefight, says Jim Warren, a US Embassy spokesman in Vientiane. No charges have been brought, and a US diplomat met last week with Mr. Mua. The Europeans have also had access to diplomats.
Laotian officials blame the Hmong for a string of deadly ambushes this year on buses traveling the country's main north-south highway. "These groups are bandits in our country that kill a lot of people ... and we don't want any bandits," says Souvanna Phouyavong, spokesman for the Laotian Embassy in Bangkok.
Analysts say exiled Hmong in France and the US, including the family of Vang Pao, the former commander of the US-backed resistance, have for years sent aid to the insurgent groups. Some exiles have plotted to overthrow the Communist regime in Laos and carve out a homeland for Hmong.
Known in French colonial times as Miao people, Hmong fled to the mountains of northern Laos in the 19th century to escape persecution in China.
When Mr. Blenkinsop and his colleague, on assignment for Time magazine, left the rebel camp, many Hmong begged to be taken out, saying they feared being wiped out.
Martin Stuart-Fox, a professor of history at the University of Queensland in Australia, says Laos has tried to keep a tight rein on Hmong communities by resettling them away from their mountain homes. This has the added benefit of opening up areas to Army-backed timber companies.
Those who resist are a thorn in the side of the regime - particularly when they are accused of attacking buses used by foreign tourists. Laos's laid-back Buddhist culture and bargain prices have become a lure for adventurous Western travelers. "Laos is very eager to get rid of them ... it will be difficult for them to survive if they're constantly on the run and under attack by Lao soldiers," says Mr. Stuart-Fox.