MANILA, OCT. 10 -- Nearly 400 Montagnard tribesmen from Vietnam's Central Highlands today gave up a lonely, 17-year struggle against the Vietnamese government and turned themselves over to U.N. peace-keeping troops in Cambodia.
Now the jungle-dwelling fighters and their families, the remnants of a force that once numbered in the thousands, want to move to North Carolina to join comrades resettled there in 1985.
"We the Montagnard people . . . have today put down our arms and have agreed to dismantle our military and political movement," said a handwritten statement issued by the group's leader, Y Peng Ayun, in the wilds of eastern Cambodia. He described himself as a "colonel" in the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, a Montagnard guerrilla group better known by its French acronym, FULRO.
The move by the predominantly Christian hill tribe organization, founded in 1964 and believed to be the last armed group still fighting the Vietnam War, appeared to end an obscure but bitter chapter of that conflict. Formerly armed and trained by the CIA and U.S. Special Forces, the Montagnards were virtually abandoned when the South Vietnamese government crumbled in 1975 and Hanoi's victorious army reunified the country.
Since then, the tribesmen headed by Ayun have been waging a hopeless guerrilla war. Forced to flee from the Central Highlands into neighboring Cambodia in 1979, the rebels were reduced to small-scale cross-border forays as Vietnamese attacks and disease decimated their ranks. They also faced hostilities from the Vietnamese-installed Phnom Penh government and the Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
Earlier this year, the Montagnards made contact with Uruguayan troops of the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia. Then, late last month, they agreed in principle to lay down their arms to qualify for aid from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"They have made up their minds that they want to be resettled as a group in the United States," said UNHCR representative Sergio Viera de Mello last week in Phnom Penh. "They don't have many friends. They feel threatened by the Khmer Rouge and by the Phnom Penh army."
The U.S. government has agreed to screen the Montagnards for admission to the United States, but only on a case-by-case basis. In 1985, more than 200 Montagnards who trekked across war-torn Cambodia to the Thai border were resettled in the hills around Raleigh, N.C., under the sponsorship of Lutheran missionaries.
Today, 398 Montagnards -- more than half women and children -- boarded U.N. helicopters at their remote jungle camp in Mondulkiri Province eight miles from the Vietnamese border and flew to a U.N. refugee transit center near Phnom Penh.
Before abandoning their base, the rebels surrendered 194 old but well-maintained weapons, mostly AK-47 assault rifles, and their supply of 2,557 rounds of ammunition as monkeys screeched from trees, said Annick Roulet, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Phnom Penh who accompanied the group.
"I stop fighting the Vietnamese communist government in Hanoi," Ayun declared as he turned over the FULRO flag to a Uruguayan colonel.
At a makeshift church at the site, Roulet said, the Montagnards left flowers in front of a rough-hewn wooden cross and a piece of slow-burning tree resin in a Coca-Cola can. A few took along pet dogs or monkeys, but most left the jungle with practically nothing but the clothes on their backs, she said by telephone from Phnom Penh. Now they will undergo medical checkups and refugee screening by the U.S. and possibly other governments.
Many of the Montagnards suffer from tuberculosis, snakebites, malaria or other illnesses. They have been living on corn, squash, pumpkins, yams and peppers; nearby rivers teem with fish and crocodiles.
Converted to Christianity by missionaries decades ago, the Montagnards have kept the faith through a few worn Bibles and hymnals translated into their languages, as well as through weekly shortwave broadcasts of sermons.