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O.C. Viet Group Is FBI Target

Diplomacy: Self-styled freedom fighters are terrorists, Vietnam government says. Investigation centers on ties to alleged bombing plots in Asia.

November 15, 2001|MAI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The FBI is examining the activities of an Orange County group of self-styled freedom fighters that has been branded a terrorist organization by the Vietnamese government.

Chanh Huu Nguyen, president of the group called Government of Free Vietnam, said FBI agents visited the group's headquarters at a Garden Grove office complex twice over the last two weeks, spending hours asking about the organization's activities. An FBI source confirmed the meetings but declined to provide details about the probe, which is in its early stages.

Free Vietnam attracted attention earlier this year when some of its members were arrested in Thailand, the Philippines and at John Wayne Airport in connection with alleged bombing plots at Vietnamese embassies in Bangkok and Manila.

Until now, federal officials have focused primarily on one member of the organization, Van Duc Vo, 41. Prosecutors allege that Vo planted a bomb next to the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok this summer but that it failed to explode. He was charged last month with use of a weapon of mass destruction by a U.S. citizen in a foreign country.

In the wake of the arrest, officials in Vietnam demanded that the United States take action against the group--especially given American's new war on terrorism that began in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Free Vietnam consists mostly of former South Vietnamese soldiers and bureaucrats living in the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia. The group said it has established jungle training camps along the Thai-Laotian border near Vietnam.

According to Nguyen, the FBI agents came with a dossier of materials about the organization and quizzed him about its activities. They also presented Nguyen with a stack of newspaper clippings, asking whether quotes attributed to him about the group were accurate, he said.

"I answered with the truth because I have nothing to hide," Nguyen said. "I am a freedom fighter for my country and I am ready to face any retribution, even if I will die."

Nguyen, a 52-year-old former contractor, said he doesn't know whether the FBI suspects his group of criminal action. . He said Vo is a longtime member of the organization but that the attempted embassy bombing in Bangkok was done without the group's authorization.

It is illegal to raise money in the United States for overseas terror campaigns. Law enforcement efforts to stop it occur only sporadically, experts say.

Nguyen maintains that he's broken no U.S. laws.

"I didn't do anything wrong in the United States," Nguyen said. "The FBI does their job and asks me questions, and I do my job to fight for my country."

Nguyen is a controversial member of Orange County's large Vietnamese community, and information about his organization is difficult to verify.

He said the group has an annual budget of about $1 million, mostly donated by wealthy Vietnamese businessmen around the world. Membership estimates by the group have ranged from 2,000 to 200,000.

The only member of the group to face criminal charges is Vo, a naturalized American citizen formerly of El Monte.

He remains behind bars following his arrest at John Wayne Airport last month. He has pleaded not guilty to the weapons charges, which could bring a life prison term if convicted. His trial is scheduled to begin next month.

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