V I EN T I A N E, Laos, Aug. 1, 2000 -- A series of bomb attacks in the Laotian capital of Vientiane could hit tourism this year, the country’s ambassador to Thailand said today.
No one has claimed responsibility for at least eight reported bomb attacks over the past four months that have injured dozens of people in the capital and provincial towns.
Hiem Phommachanh told Reuters the authorities feared that tourists were concerned by the recent bomb attacks and some had decided to avoid travelling to Laos.
“We understand that tourists may feel scared by what has been happening in Laos, and we wish those bombs had not taken place,” he said in a telephone interview.
Laos started its two-year “Visit Laos” campaign in 1999, and had successfully increased tourist numbers, Hiem said.
He said that in the first half of 2000 alone around 600,000 tourists visited — greater than the annual figure of around 500,000 visitors in previous years.
“We thought we could achieve a target of one million visitors this year, but with the series of bomb incidents, it might be difficult,” Hiem said.
Vientiane is also due to host the 13th meeting between Southeast Asian and European Union foreign ministers in December, and the recent spate of bomb attacks has added to security fears.
Rise in Terror Attacks
The latest incident took place on Monday at the Vientiane Post Office, where a bomb blast injured seven people.
Hiem said no arrests had yet been made in connection with the blast.
The state-owned English-language Vientiane Times newspaper reported today that around 100 people had been at the post office when the bomb exploded, and a handicapped man in a wheelchair was among the injured.
The explosion was in the parcel collection service point in the main building of the post office, the newspaper reported.
Hiem branded the bomb a “terrorist act.”
“Nobody knows what these people want to achieve politically, they have not said what they want from these acts,” he said.
“If they want to achieve something politically, they should use proper channels, not a terrorist act.”
Asked how delegates from Southeast Asian nations and the European Union would be protected during December’s meeting, Hiem said a major security operation would be conducted then.
Lao authorities declined to say who they believed were responsible for the post office bomb, but have blamed the series of recent explosions on anti-government elements within the Hmong, an ethnic group spread across highland regions in several countries of Southeast Asia.
The Hmong have denied responsibility.
The Monday incident followed confirmation by Laotian authorities that a time bomb had been found in a toilet at Vientiane’s Vat Tai airport on Sunday morning. Airport security officials defused the bomb.
Also over the weekend, an explosive device was found inside the Vietnamese embassy in Laos, the clearest sign yet that this recent series of bombings has been politically motivated, diplomats and foreign residents said today. The bomb was defused.
Vietnam is Laos’ closest ally, and earlier this year was believed to have given Laos direct military support to fight a resurgent ethnic Hmong rebellion. Vietnamese communists fought alongside Laotian comrades during the Vietnam War and helped the current Laotian regime take power in 1975.
Other bombings include one which injured about 10 building workers in Vientiane on June 28 and another on May 28, when an explosion in a busy market in the capital hurt 20 people.
A Vientiane restaurant bombing on March 30 wounded at least nine foreign tourists and four local people.
The attacks are seemingly intended to embarrass the government, which tolerates no dissent, by showing it to be incapable of maintaining safety despite an extensive security apparatus, the diplomats and residents said.
Embassies are set to update travel warnings after the airport scare and a bomb attack Monday at Vientiane’s central post office that wounded at least seven Laotians, diplomats said today.
Some analysts believe the attacks could be the result of internal rifts within the military or government, amid further doubts of its ability to manage the inflation-racked economy.
Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad ruled out differences within the regime in an interview in a state-run newspaper Monday and said the bombings were similar in nature to problems that could happen in any country.
Senior Laotian officials have variously blamed expatriate Laotians who fled the country after 1975 or personal vendettas and business disputes. But they have identified no suspects.
This year, ethnic Hmong, who used to fight in a CIA-backed army during the Vietnam War, have gathered strength, but it’s thought unlikely the fighters could target urban areas.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.