PHNOM PENH - Cambodian police said Wednesday they were scouring remote northeastern jungles for a group of Vietnamese Montagnards who crossed the border in an apparent attempt to seek asylum.
Rights groups say 13 of the hill tribe people, including one woman, fled persecution in Vietnam late last month and have since been hiding out in Cambodia's Rattanakiri province.
"Montagnards" is a French term referring to the patchwork of mainly Christian ethnic minority groups that live in Vietnam's mountainous Central Highlands region.
"We are searching for them. We haven't found them yet," Rattanakiri police chief Nguon Koern told AFP, adding that the Ministry of Interior would decide if the group should be deported.
In Hanoi the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not immediately confirm whether it is seeking their deportation.
"However, all citizens of all countries have to obey the laws of their own countries as well as regulations concerning entry and exit formalities," ministry official Pham Thu Hang told AFP.
Many Montagnards supported French and later US forces against the communists during the Indochina wars, and have faced persecution and discrimination since the end of the conflict in 1975.
The 13 individuals have fled persecution in Vietnam and want to seek asylum, said Chhay Thy, Rattanakiri coordinator for the Cambodian rights group Adhoc.
They are short of food and suffering from malaria but are scared to leave the jungle in case they are deported, he told AFP.
The United Nations refugee agency has said that forcibly returning the 13 to Vietnam would be a violation of international legal obligations.
Cambodian local media reported that the group were from the Jarai ethnic minority group. It is not clear whether they are fleeing specific authorities or general religious persecution.
Many Montagnard groups practise forms of evangelical Protestantism, which puts them further at odds with Vietnam's communist rulers who tightly control religion.
Vietnam routinely asks Cambodia to return Montagnard people who flee and it has usually complied, particularly since 2001 when Vietnamese troops crushed protests in the Central Highlands and prompted an exodus of Montagnards.
In May 2011 thousands of Hmong people - one of the Montagnard groups - gathered in Vietnam's remote northwest apparently awaiting the arrival of a "messiah".
The gathering was broken up by authorities in circumstances which remain unclear.
Dozens of people have been jailed over the incident, which Vietnam has cast as a separatist plot to overthrow its communist government.