BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's repatriation of thousands of ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers to Laos was imminent despite international objections that they could face persecution back home, a senior army officer said on Sunday.
About 5,000 soldiers, policemen and civil servants were being assigned to carry out the repatriation of the Hmong at a refugee camp in Huay Nam Khao in Phetchabun province, 300 km (186 miles) north of Bangkok, Colonel Thana Charuvat said.
"We will start the operation as soon as we get the final instruction and when everything is ready. That includes mobilizing enough manpower to carry it out, otherwise it may encourage resistance," Thana told Reuters.
"A show of sufficient force on our part is essential to deter resistance, but we have no intention to use force. Our men are armed with shields and batons. They carry no guns or tear gas out of concern for the safety of women and children," he said.
Most of the 4,400 Hmong facing repatriation have settled at Huay Nam Khao since 2004 to seek political asylum, saying they would be persecuted by Laos's communist government if they return.
Over 1,000 of them are men over 15 who could put up resistance to the forced repatriation, according to Colonel Thana, a senior officer charged with running the camp.
"We need to meet the obligation we have made with Laos, and hope that we don't have to postpone it again. Laos has given repeated public guarantees of full safety for the returnees," he said.
Known as America's "forgotten allies," Hmong were recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to fight alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
When the communists took power in 1975, the Hmong exodus began. Tens of thousands have since been resettled in the U.S.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Friday sought to allay fears about their forced repatriation, saying his government would ensure it took place in a transparent way "without chaos and in accordance with human rights principles."
Thailand regards the ethnic minority group at Huay Nam Khao as illegal economic migrants and has come under fire for denying the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) access to the camp.
Colonel Thana said the media was denied access to the Hmong prior to the repatriation out of official concern they might resort to stunts to draw public attention to their status.
"This is to discourage the Hmong from resorting to possible self-inflicted physical abuses to attract public attention," he said.
Officials at the camp said about 100 buses and trucks would be needed to move the Hmong from Huay Nam Khao to the Thai-Lao border at Nong Khai opposite Lao capital Vientiane.
UNHCR, diplomats and rights groups believe some of the Hmong could qualify for refugee status if a screening process were allowed to take place.
Thailand fears that by facilitating their resettlement in a third country, it could create a "pull factor" that encourages more illegal migrants.
Colonel Thana questioned the sincerity expressed by third countries about accepting the refugees.
"If other countries really want to accept these refugees, they would have been resettled a long time ago," he said.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern on Thursday about reports of forced repatriation, noting that in the past, the Thai government had said many Hmong were in need of protection.
"Forced returns of persons entitled to protection is inconsistent with international practice and Thailand's long history of protection of refugees," acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
UNHCR said Thailand had "the responsibility and international obligation" to ensure those in need of protection in their native countries were returned "only on a voluntary basis."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)