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Baldwin Park Man Agrees to Be Extradited to Thailand

Law: Defendant is a member of Garden Grove-based Free Vietnam group and faces terrorism charges in bombing attempt at embassy in Bangkok.

June 13, 2002|MAI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man who was arrested at John Wayne Airport last year in connection with the attempted bombing of the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok will be extradited to face trial for terrorism in Thailand, U.S. prosecutors said Wednesday.

Van Duc Vo, a member of a Little Saigon-based organization dedicated to overthrowing Vietnam's Communist government, was charged in the United States with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.

The U.S. attorney's office decided to drop the charges after Vo agreed not to fight extradition to Thailand.

Vo's trial is expected to shed light on Free Vietnam, a Garden Grove organization run by several exiles that claims to have established military training camps on Vietnam's border and vows to one day "liberate" their homeland.

Leaders of Free Vietnam said they didn't order Vo to bomb the embassy but described him as one of the organization's longtime leaders. In the wake of Vo's arrest, the government of Vietnam called on U.S. authorities to take action against Free Vietnam, which it labels a terrorist organization.

Vo faces nine counts of firearms and explosive charges in Thailand and could be extradited within the next few months, said assistant U.S. Atty. Andrew Brown. Vo said he is innocent and will vigorously fight the charges in Bangkok.

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Vo, 42, of Baldwin Park, was arrested Oct. 12 after he stepped off a plane from Seattle. Prosecutors alleged that Vo and another man checked into the Reo Residence Hotel in Thailand and bought two cell phones four days before the bombing attempt.

At 4 a.m. on June 19, 2001, Vo allegedly placed a backpack full of explosives in front of the Vietnamese Embassy's gates and threw a brown cardboard box over the fence, authorities said. The box contained 11 pounds of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate--the same type of mixture used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, prosecutors said.

Both bags had notes attached and were linked to a detonator that was supposed to be activated by a cell phone. Prosecutors said the detonator malfunctioned, preventing a explosion that could have killed or injured dozens of people. Vo, a former architectural student and construction contractor, is a commander of the Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnamese region for Free Vietnam. The group has been battling the Vietnamese government for years, publishing opposition newspapers inside the country and mounting "war games" on the border. Authorities also have linked Free Vietnam members to attempted bombings at Vietnamese embassies across Asia and Europe. Vo's brother, Van Tri Vo, is facing charges for attempted bombings in Manila.

Vo's attorneys said their client had no intention of blowing up anything in Bangkok. They said Vo didn't plant the bombs, and once he saw them tried to alert authorities.

"He wanted to save innocent lives," said Jimmy Tong Nguyen, an investigator working for the defense. "He's a peaceful person with good judgment, not a terrorist."

More than 40 supporters, including Vo's parents and his oldest daughter, Diane, and some members of the Free Vietnam group, packed the courtroom to show their support.

"I've always told him to take care of his family," said Vo's mother, Tim Nguyen, 77, of Baldwin Park, as she wiped away tears. "But he is so adamant about overthrowing the Communists. He'd rather die at sea than live under their rule."

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