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Laos general and Hmong leader Vang Pao dies in exile

May 11, 2009 file photo, former Laotian General Vang Pao, centre, is escorted by supporters to the federal courthouse, in Sacramento, California
Vang Pao, accused of subversion against Laos in 2007, was revered for his war record

Vang Pao, the former general and leader of his Hmong ethnic group in Laos, has died in exile in the US, aged 81.

He had been in hospital for about 10 days before his death late on Thursday.

As a young man, he had fought against the Japanese during World War II, and with the French against the North Vietnamese in the 1950s.

He led a 15-year CIA-sponsored secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War and, when it was lost, led tens of thousands of his people into exile.

Thousands of ethnic Hmong are expected to attend his funeral in Fresno, California.

"He'll be remembered as a great general, a great warrior, a great Hmong soldier," his friend Charlie Waters told AFP news agency.

However the response from the Laos government was muted. "He was an ordinary person, so we do not have any reaction," a government spokesman was quoted by AFP as saying.

'Last of his kind'

Gen Pao was a controversial figure, deeply loved by many Hmong - an ethnic minority in Lao that complains of persecution - for his insistence on freedom from foreign domination.

Former Central Intelligence Agency chief William Colby once called Gen Pao "the biggest hero of the Vietnam War".

But critics say that by allying himself with the US, Gen Pao caused his people untold suffering - something that he himself recognised.

"I lost 17,000 men, almost 10% of the total Hmong population. The Hmong sacrificed the most in the war and were the ones who suffered the most," he said at the Heritage Foundation think tank in 1987.

Americans who first came into contact with him found a man skilled in warfare and with the charisma necessary to sustain a dangerous, 15-year operation in support of the US against the North Vietnamese.

The CIA airline, Air America, carried Gen Pao and his fighters across the country.

The Hmong

  • Ethnic group that complains of marginalisation and persecution in Lao society
  • Backed the US in 1960s as conflict spread from Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia
  • Many fled abroad in 1975 when the communists took power in Laos
  • Big Hmong communities in California, Minnesota, Thailand and Australia

On the ground, he and his men disrupted Vietnamese supply lines and engaged in pitched battles to try to stave off the Vietnamese-backed communist victory in Laos.

When that effort failed in 1975, Gen Pao led many thousands of Hmong into what are now well-established exile communities in the US.

The Central Valley of California, Minneapolis and cities throughout Wisconsin have a Hmong presence of an estimated 30,000-40,0000.

In his later years, Gen Pao was accused of leading rebellions or sponsoring subversion against the People's Democratic Republic of Laos.

In 2007, he was charged along with nine others with plotting to use AK-47 rifles, missiles and mercenaries to overthrow the Lao government. Charges against him were later dropped.

He was regarded by some as an exiled head of state.

"He's the last of his kind, the last of the leadership that carries that reference that everyone holds dear," said Blong Xiong, a Fresno city councilman and prominent Hmong-American.

"Whether they're young or old, they hear his name, there's the respect that goes with it."

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