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2/17/11 Vietnam (AFP) – Ten ethnic Montagnards returned to communist Vietnam from Cambodia on Wednesday, authorities in Hanoi said, rejecting concerns that the group could be mistreated.

They were among more than 1,700 Montagnards who fled to Cambodia in 2001 and 2004 after security forces crushed protests against land confiscations and religious persecution.

Members of the largely Christian Montagnards backed US forces during the Vietnam War.

The 10 — who did not qualify as refugees — had been in a group of 75 Vietnamese Montagnards living at a United Nations refugee centre in Cambodia, which decided to close the facility. Phnom Penh gave the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) until Tuesday to shut it down.

Hanoi’s foreign ministry, which does not refer to the minorities as Montagnards, said in a statement that on Wednesday “Vietnam received the last 10 Tay Nguyen ethnic minority people and brought them back to their localities safely. Local authorities are proceeding with measures to support these people in their reintegration.”

UNHCR staff accompanied the Montagnards to their village, the agency’s spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said.

Most of the 75 have gone to Canada as refugees, while a few others were accepted by the United States, she said.

The closure of the centre appeared to signal the end of a 2005 deal between Vietnam, Cambodia and the UNHCR under which Montagnards could choose whether to resettle in a third country or return home. Cambodia has refused to allow them to stay in the kingdom.

Human Rights Watch said Montagnards “will continue to try to flee Vietnam as long as the Vietnamese government systematically violates their basic rights”.

But Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said that “ethnic minority people” returning from Cambodia had not been mistreated.

The government has been trying to improve socioeconomic conditions in their native Central Highlands region, she said.

McKinsey said that of the 1,734 Montagnards who fled and went through the UNHCR process, 986 were resettled as refugees in third countries, 256 returned voluntarily to Vietnam, and 492 were deported to Vietnam without UNHCR’s involvement.

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