Laos says fate of missing activist unknown

BANGKOK - Laos said Thursday that it was unaware of the whereabouts of an award-winning development activist whose disappearance has triggered international concern, suggesting he may have been kidnapped.

Sombath Somphone, 62, was last seen on Saturday in Vientiane when his car was stopped at a police post, according to his wife Ng Shui Meng. CCTV images appear to show him being driven away with two unidentified people.

In a statement carried by the official KPL Lao News Agency, the authorities said Sombath might have been abducted over a personal dispute.

"It may be possible Mr Sombath has been kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business or some other reasons and at this stage the authorities are not in a position to say exactly what has actually happened, why Mr. Sombath has gone missing and who (has) been involved," it said.

The United States has urged Laos to locate Sombath, expressing "concerns for his well-being and safety".

The campaigner won the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work in poverty reduction and sustainable development in a country that remains one of Southeast Asia's poorest nations.

Laos is a one-party communist state which exerts total control over the media and does not tolerate criticism of its institutions.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern that Sombath "has been taken into custody by Lao authorities, and that he could be at serious risk of ill treatment".

"Lao authorities should come clean on the enforced disappearance of this prominent social leader and take steps to stem the deepening climate of fear his disappearance has caused," said HRW Asia director Brad Adams.

A Lao foreign ministry official told AFP that the disappearance was considered to be a "private matter".

"At the moment we cannot confirm that he was kidnapped or have any information about where he was going, but our officials are not giving up looking for him," the official said.

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