BANGKOK (AFP) – The United States on Monday accused Lao officials of obstructing its investigation into the fate of three Lao-Americans missing for more than two months in the Southeast Asian nation.
Three US embassy officials travelled to the southern province of Savannakhet on March 6 to look into reports that the men may have died in a car accident, said a US embassy spokesperson in Vientiane.
“Local Lao officials refused to provide any information or assistance in determining the welfare and whereabouts of the missing men, and physically prevented the embassy officials from entering an incident site which may be related to the case,” he said in an emailed statement.
“We have made multiple requests to the Government of Laos to provide us with information and assistance that would help us determine the welfare and whereabouts of these individuals. We will continue to vigorously press the Lao government for information and assistance with this case.”
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Authorities in Laos have obstructed U.S. investigations into the whereabouts of two U.S. citizens and an American permanent resident who have been reported missing in the Southeast Asian nation for more than two months, according to a State Department official.
The official for the first time confirmed that the three men—two Lao Americans and one Lao U.S. permanent resident—had gone missing in Laos, saying family members, relatives, and friends of the trio had told U.S. Embassy officials in Vientiane that they have not seen or heard from them since Jan. 6.
The three men were last seen in Savannakhet, the largest province in Laos in the southern part of the country, and initial reports had said that they may have died in a traffic accident.
“A consular official and two embassy staff traveled to Savannakhet on March 6 to investigate reports that the three men may have died in a car accident,” the State Department official told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“During the Embassy officials’ two-day visit, local Lao officials refused to provide any information or assistance in determining the welfare and whereabouts of the missing men, and physically prevented the Embassy officials from entering an incident site which may be related to the case,” the official said.
The U.S. government, according to the official, has “made multiple requests to the government of Laos to provide us with information and assistance that would help us determine the welfare and whereabouts of these individuals.”
“We will continue to vigorously press the Lao government for information and assistance with this case,” the official said.
Relatives and friends have said that the three men, Souli Kongmalavong, Bounthieng Insixiengmai, and Bounma Phannhotha, disappeared after traveling to a funeral in Savannakhet province.
Local police contacted by RFA’s Lao Service had earlier confirmed that they are looking for the men, who sources said disappeared after leaving Savannakhet city to drive to Kengkok village in Champon district for a funeral.
Police in Sonburi district, which neighbors Champon, said that during the investigations, they had recovered a burned van on Jan. 6 with three bodies—those of two men and one woman—but the remains could not be identified due to their condition.
The police officer who spoke to RFA added that the license number of the van could not be identified and that police believe the vehicle caught fire after running off the side of the road.
News on the missing trio surfaced as Lao authorities continue to come under pressure to provide information about leading local social activist Sombath Somphone’s disappearance since December 2012 after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane.
Rights groups have raised concerns that Sombath, one of Laos’s most prominent civil society figures, was targeted for his rights work, with some saying they fear he was forcibly disappeared by Lao authorities.
A Minnesota-based Lao-American group had expressed concern about the safety of the three men in the wake of Sombath’s disappearance.
“We are deeply worried that, based upon some reports, they may have been wrongly detained or arrested by the Lao military or secret police,” said Boon Boualaphanh, President of the United Lao for Democracy and Human Rights.
A close friend of Souli’s in Savannakhet, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said that Souli had been missing since early January after leaving for the funeral of Bounthieng’s brother-in-law.
Other sources said that Bounthieng and Bounma were driving with Souli to the funeral.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.