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Pressure mounts on Vientiane to find missing activist

The international community yesterday piled pressure on authorities in Vientiane to take responsibility for the disappearance of Magsaysay Award-winner Sombath Somphone as Laos' foreign ministry seemed to distance itself by saying he was kidnapped for a personal conflict from a police outpost in Vientiane on Saturday.

"At this stage the authorities are not in a position to say exactly what has actually happened, why Sombath has gone missing or who might have been involved in the incident," the ministry said in describing a video provided by Sombath's wife Ng Shui Meng showing that he was taken away by a pickup truck after being stopped by police at an outpost on his way back home.

The authorities did not say why Lao police failed to protect Sombath from the abductors but vowed to continue investigating the incident and find him.

The closed-circuit television footage from his wife and the initial investigation indicated that the Lao activist was snatched because of a personal or business conflict or for some other reason, according to a ministry statement.

A group of activists and human rights defenders in Thailand have called international attention to the incident over the past two to three days. They, together with Ng Shui Meng, sent appeals to authorities in Vientiane asking them to ensure his safety.

Thailand's Magsaysay Award-winner Jon Ungphakorn said 31 Ramon Magsaysay Award recipients have endorsed a letter to various authorities in Laos expressing extreme concern about the safety and well-being of Sombath, who won the prize in 2005.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the Lao government needs to immediately reveal Sombath's location and release him.

"Lao authorities should come clean on the enforced disappearance of this prominent social leader and take steps to stem the deepening climate of fear his disappearance has caused," he said.

Sombath's wife said she was driving home with him in two vehicles. Sombath followed Shui Meng's car in his Jeep on Saturday evening. His jeep was still behind her car at about 6pm near the police post on Thadeua Road. Soon after that she did not see him anymore, she said, adding that she went out to look for him that night.

His family reported him missing to local authorities on Sunday and went to the Vientiane Police Station on Monday asking to review the CCTV footage taken around 6pm.

"We did see my husband stopped by police at the Thadeua police post at 6:03pm. Then we saw him getting out of the jeep and being taken into the police post. Later we saw a motorcyclist who stopped at the police post and drove off with my husband's jeep leaving his motorcycle by the roadside.

"Later another truck with flashing lights came and stopped at the police post and we saw two people taking my husband into the vehicle and driving off."

Shui Meng wrote to many agencies outlining what she saw in the CCTV footage.

"It is now nearly four days since the disappearance of my husband and I have yet to hear anything of his whereabouts," she said.

"I appeal to the government of the Lao PDR to please investigate my husband's disappearance as soon as possible, release information of his whereabouts and ensure his safety."

The statement from the Lao foreign ministry said almost the same as the video but did not indicate a serious commitment to ensuring his safety.

"In this connection, the authorities concerned are currently and seriously investigating the incident in order to find out the truth and the whereabouts of Sombath," the statement said.


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