Is a rebel uprising brewing in communist Laos?
A few groups of minority ethnic Hmong, who fought alongside the US against communist forces in Vietnam and Laos in the 1960s and 1970s, appear desperate to fight their way out of jungle hideaways.
Observers describe a rag-tag band of rebels with almost nothing to eat, old guns and next to no ammunition. Their war cry: "Better to die today than to die tomorrow."
But reports from exiled Hmong groups say a battle has begun and that army defectors and other unspecified disaffected groups are joining a rebellion in 11 provinces of the land-locked country.
The Laotian government says there is no fighting. And many analysts are skeptical, believing the exiled groups are taking advantage of recent attention on the impoverished Hmong to sell the idea of an anti-communist struggle and raise funds.
But some detect signs of fighting.
"The organizations sending the reports don't have a fantastic track record of being very careful," said Daniel Alberman, a London-based reporter for rights advocate Amnesty International.
"But I'm a believer that there's no smoke without fire," he said. "There are things going on ... there seem to be small groups of Hmong fighters in rural areas fighting with authorities and also fighting among Hmong groups."
Waiting for US rescue
The Hmong recently grabbed the headlines when three foreign journalists, in Laos to report on the rebel groups, were briefly jailed by police before being deported this month.
The Hmong rebels are the remnants of the "Montagnards," founded in the 1950s by the French colonial army and adopted by the US to fight in the Vietnam War.
Author Christopher Robbins has written of tales from US pilots smuggled out of Vietnam into Laos to direct secret US bombing of Vietnamese supply routes. The pilots worked and lived with the Hmong army, led by General Vang Pao.
"Exile groups create their own dynamic of paranoia and craziness and they can be very intimidating to their own communities if anyone tries to say anything different," said Grant Evans, a Laos expert at Hong Kong University.
But Hmong exiles say relatives they left behind in the jungles are now so isolated they are eating tree roots.
Earlier this year, two Time reporters traveled to Northern Laos and visited the restricted "Xaisomboun special zone." They returned with photos of emaciated Hmong clutching old rifles, weeping and begging on their knees for help.
A Belgian -- one of the journalists recently jailed -- said Hmong he visited were starving and waiting for an American rescue.
Jungle battles and media battles
The Fact Finding Commission (FFC), a California-based group set up by Hmong exiles to publicize the anti-communist rebels, is pushing the idea of a coordinated uprising across the country.
But its early claims of fighting have been modest.
The group says the newly formed Lao Citizen Movement for Democracy, led by a former officer in the pre-1975 Royal Lao Army, took brief control of two villages in mid-July and melted back into the countryside when government troops turned up.
Vientiane-based diplomats have heard rumors that some anti-government activity was being planned, but they have not seen or heard anything to substantiate the reports.
The Laotian government denies any uprising.
"The news is groundless and was made up to create confusion and chaos in Laos," Laotian Ambassador to Thailand Hiem Phommachanh said.
While it is unclear whether the Hmong rebels are able to wage a military campaign, they are ready to conduct a media campaign.
The FCC says it has given satellite telephones, cameras and video equipment to its operatives in Laos so it can tell the story of what it calls "the genocide" of Hmong rebels.
"We want to bring the world's attention to the people in mountains because they're being wiped out," said Ed Szendrey, who helped found the FFC. "Over the last 28 years there've been about 28,000 deaths."