Thailand suspended on Friday the forced repatriation of ethnic Karen refugees from military-ruled Myanmar, heeding calls from U.S. lawmakers and rights groups who said they faced possible death or enslavement.
About 3,000 ethnic Karens entered Thailand in June, when the Myanmar regime stepped up fighting against the Karen National Union (KNU).
Rights activists say they are concerned for the safety of about 1,700 Karens who remain in Thai refugee camps if they are forced to return to landmine-infested regions in Myanmar.
A group of 27 U.S. lawmakers on Thursday wrote a letter to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva asking him to stop the planned deportation.
Colonel Noppadon Watcharajitborworn, a commander in the western Thai border town of Mae Sot, said the defence ministry has told his taskforce to suspend all repatriation, although 16 ethnic Karens were already sent back earlier on Friday morning.
"We have been asked by Bangkok after coordination by the U.S. requesting a temporary suspension. We are also re-evaluating the situation after rights groups voice concerns," Noppadon said.
Noppadon earlier said about 160 people had "volunteered" to return from three temporary refugee camps. Rights groups dispute Thailand's claim of voluntary repatriation, saying the Karens would be returning to a landmine-infested region.
"Sending these refugees back to Burma is sending them back to possible death, slave labour or forced recruitment as soldiers," said Zoya Phan, a coordinator of the London-based Burma Campaign.
ReutersLast Mod: 05 Şubat 2010, 14:34