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U.S. accuses 10 of plotting coup in Laos

Among those held on charges of trying to buy weapons are a Hmong leader in Westminster and an ex-California National Guard officer.

June 05, 2007|Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez | Times Staff Writers

A retired California National Guard lieutenant colonel and a prominent Hmong leader were charged with eight others Monday in an alleged plot to buy missiles, mines, assault rifles and other arms to topple the communist government of Laos.

Among those arrested was Gen. Vang Pao of Westminster, a CIA-backed ally of the United States during the Vietnam War and a leader among Hmong refugees who settled in the state 30 years ago.

Also named in a federal complaint was former Lt. Col. Harrison Ulrich Jack, of Woodland, Calif., who allegedly met with an undercover agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to discuss air-dropping arms into Laos.

Jack acted as a go-between in arranging the arms deals, officials alleged.

Search and arrest warrants also were served in Chico, Calif.; Sacramento and Stockton, as well as in Fresno, where the state's Hmong are concentrated, federal officials said.

During the Vietnam War, Laos was a secret battleground for the United States, which recruited tens of thousands of Hmong to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After the war, many refugees migrated to California's Central Valley and Minnesota.

The group charged Monday allegedly wanted a total of $9.8 million in arms and had agreed to an initial payment of $150,000, according to the federal complaint filed in Sacramento.

The arms were allegedly to be delivered to a remote location in Thailand and smuggled into Laos later this month. Couriers carrying $10,000 each reportedly had begun moving money to Thailand, where the payments were to be delivered. Though no weapons were delivered, the group allegedly was on the verge of launching a sophisticated plan to overthrow Laos' communist regime.

Among the weapons sought, according to prosecutors, were Stinger missiles, machine guns, anti-tank rockets, claymore mines and rocket-propelled grenades.

Federal agents, who launched the investigation after receiving a tip, had to move quickly because the first arms transaction allegedly was to have been completed next week. During Monday's raids, agents seized $170,000 in cash, as well as financial records and 10 opium plants.

Steve Martin, special agent in charge of the ATF's San Francisco field office, said more arrests could be made.

"We've got to sift through the evidence and see where it takes us," he said. "There's still a lot more to go."

Pao, 77, is revered by many in the Hmong community and has been credited with helping bring thousands of his homeland's refugees to the United States. The Hmong community in the United States is estimated at 275,000, the largest outside Asia.

Two weeks ago, a Wisconsin public elementary school was named for Pao. But the honor triggered controversy because of his violent past.

Chi Vang, Pao's 22-year-old son, said his father's arrest shocked their family and members of the Hmong community, who had been calling the Westminster home all day.

"The community already knows the truth about him -- this is just an accusation," said Chi Vang, who was trying to find a lawyer for his father.

Orange County, with a large Southeast Asian community, is home to a number of anti-communist sympathizers. Over the last several years, authorities have foiled a number of plots involving expatriates who were attempting to destabilize governments in their homelands.

Early Monday morning, federal agents banged on the door of Pao's two-story white-and-brown house. Authorities showed the family a search warrant and scoured the house but didn't take anything, Vang said.

Hueson Yang, 43, of Covington, Ga., who described himself as a member of Pao's extended family, recalled Pao's distaste for the Laotian government.

"He tells all the people all the time he's going to take Laos back," Yang said.

Yang said that although some elderly Hmong cling to Vang Pao's ideas, younger, more educated Hmong dismiss his views.

"He talks about overthrowing Laos," Yang said. "He's trying to make the Hmong people think he's still their leader."

For at least the last six months, officials said, Pao and several other defendants worked as a committee to launch the coup. Working inside Laos with the group were operatives who conducted surveillance, including one man who posed as a tourist and snapped photos of government buildings, prosecutors alleged. Among the targets was the Lao Royal Palace and buildings in downtown Vientiane, the Laotian capital.

Pao and the others had issued orders "to destroy these government facilities ... and make them look like the results of the attack upon the World Trade Center," the complaint alleges.

Arrangements to inspect and purchase the weapons allegedly were made in a series of meetings in Sacramento-area restaurants and hotels with the ATF undercover agent.

As part of the plan, committee members tried to hire former U.S. Army Special Forces members and Navy SEALs, officials alleged.

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