Sat, Nov 27, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Bombs go off in ASEAN lead-up

SECURITY CLAMPDOWN The explosions came amid tightened security measures, unprecedented for Laos, for the regional group's upcoming meeting in Vientiane

AFP AND AP , Vientiane, Laos

A police officer checks the papers of Buddhist monk Khampan Paimanee, 66, of Paxan province on Thursday on the outskirts of Vientiane, Laos. Paimanee was on his way to Vientiane to attend ``Wai Thatluang'' Laos' biggest religious festival, which has been cut from 10 days to three because of the 10th ASEAN summit.

PHOTO: AP

Two small bombs exploded outside the Laotian capital of Vientiane as the city prepared to host a crucial summit of regional leaders, foreign sources said yesterday.

The home-made bombs, made from fertilizer and with timing devices, went off late Thursday near the Friendship Bridge linking Thailand with Laos without causing any casualties, they said.

"There were no casualties and no real damage, mainly noise," said a foreign observer, who asked not to be identified.

The explosions happened just days before a meeting of leaders of the 10 members of ASEAN.

"We heard conflicting stories about a couple of explosions," said a foreign diplomat. "We're trying top get some more details."

The unhurried life of the placid, landlocked Laos has been thrown out of gear in a massive security operation by a nervous government as it prepares to host 16 heads of state in its first-ever conference of such magnitude.

Lao government spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy told reporters, with a touch of hyperbole, that all 5.7 million people of the secretive communist country will help guard the guests.

"Security is 100 percent. I guarantee you nothing will happen ... unless it is an act of God. We have increased vigilance and mobilized people to take ownership of the security," he said, before news of the two explosions.

Yong refused to say how many troops were deployed for the ASEAN meetings, which entered their second day yesterday. The conference will be capped Monday by a two-day summit of the leaders of ASEAN's 10 members, and counterparts from China, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Mostly peaceful Laos has occasionally been shaken by bombings that the government blames on rebels of the Hmong tribe, which fought alongside the CIA against communists during the early 1970s.

Laos state-run radio said this week that "bad elements" -- a euphemism for Hmong guerrillas -- might plot violence.

The security measures have crimped the Wai Thatluang festival, the most popular annual religious festival in predominantly Buddhist Laos. Hundreds of thousands from the countryside visit Vientiane to pay homage to a Buddha relic.

It was supposed to be a 10-day festival opening last Saturday. The government ordered the festival held Thursday to today only, and many people have been blocked from the capital.

State-run radio said it wasn't necessary for an entire family to visit the temple.

Visitors to Vientiane from the provinces need to get a letter from their district chief authorizing their trip for family, religious or medical emergencies.

"Luckily, I got a letter from the district chief approving me to attend the Thatluang festival. Otherwise I would have missed it," said Khampan Paimanee, 66, a Buddhist monk who traveled from Paxan province with three novices.

The four were cleared for entry at the capital's main bus terminal. Six monks without letters were sent back home.

Maeyai Vichaiyalai, a fishmonger from northern Vangvieng province, complained that her delay at a checkpoint was spoiling her fish.

"Life is more difficult these days," she said, sitting atop straw baskets containing her stinking wares.

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