BANGKOK, Thailand -- The CIA's saturation bombing of Laos killed thousands of people and reduced the tiny country to ruin three decades ago, but 4,500 men, women and children now hope America's failed "secret war" will result in free air tickets to the United States.

The communist regime in Laos, the pro-American government in Thailand, and US officials are investigating the group's problem, but cannot agree who is responsible for their crisis.

Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) spent Thursday (July 20) preparing to send the 4,500 people to Laos, after Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered the ISOC to quickly solve the problem.

The communist government in Laos, however, said it suspects some in the group did not originate in Laos, or might be faking their CIA-linked role to get to America.

The 4,500 people claim they, or their relatives, supported a CIA-backed Lao general, Vang Pao, during America's so-called "secret war" in Laos from 1961 to 1975.

The minority ethnic Hmong say they fled into Thailand from Laos to escape persecution, imprisonment and possible execution by Lao authorities due to their former link with Vang Pao and the CIA.

They were apparently optimistic about asylum in America, after Washington resettled 15,000 other Hmong from Laos in 2005.

Those 15,000 languished in Thailand for up to three decades, claiming the same CIA-tainted history.

They won support in the United States as unsung heroes of America's poorly executed war, and flew to the US last year.

Washington, however, said the 15,000 would be the last Hmong to be resettled.

The fresh batch of 4,500 began arriving in Thailand's Phetchabun province, about 185 miles north of Bangkok, last year.

"They came to Phetchabun only in the hope of resettlement to the US," Laos Ambassador to Thailand, Hiem Phommachanh, said on July 13 at an economic forum in Bangkok.

"We have had the Hmong problem for a long time...and now in Phetchabun, and it is because of Vang Pao," the Laos ambassador said.

"I reject the accusation," Vang Pao replied, according to Thailand's Nation newspaper.

"They [the Hmong] continue seeking refuge because the Laos government never loves the people. The government arrests and executes people consistently," Vang Pao said.

Vang Pao lives in the United States, where he is a controversial figure.

A color poster of Vang Pao, in full regalia, is sold via the Web site of the Hmong Cultural Center, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where many Hmong reside.

Others perceive him as a corrupt, divisive, former opium warlord who makes it difficult for America and Laos to improve relations.

About 140 Thai soldiers, police and local officials are guarding Ban Huay Nam Khao village, in Phetchabun's Khao Kho district, to block the Hmong from traveling deeper into Thailand.

Many of the 4,500 suffer a miserable existence without adequate health care, food, housing and other necessities while camped amid scrub.

Officials earlier said the group numbered 6,500, but some were sent back to Laos while others blended in among Thailand's Hmong minority.

Laos heightened its suspicion about Vang Pao's current involvement with the Hmong after an American, Ed Szendrey, said Vang Pao helped finance his illegal trip into Laos in June 2005.

Szendrey was expelled from Laos because he bought illegal satellite telephones for anti-communist Hmong guerrillas, set up a "communications network," and aided their armed movement, Szendrey said in an interview at the time.

Based in Chico, California, Szendrey said he met US State Department "Laos Desk" officials in Washington with Vang Pao, before traveling to Laos.

Vang Pao was named as "a despotic warlord" in Alfred McCoy's respected book, "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia," for smuggling opium on the CIA's Air America flights, and operating a heroin factory in Long Tieng, Laos, in the 1960s and 1970s -- while commanding the CIA's Hmong during a widened US-Vietnam war.

"Vang Pao [would] ship his dope out, which was made into heroin, which was going to our [American] troops," CIA officer Victor Marchetti told PBS's Frontline TV news show in 1988.

"Vang Pao had a heavy hand in the production of heroin in that area," former chief counsel for the US House Select Committee on Narcotics, Joe Nellis, told the same show.

Vang Pao, a gung-ho military collaborator for French colonialists, was selected by the CIA in 1961 to lead thousands of Hmong mercenaries to their deaths, fighting Vietnamese and Lao communists.

The CIA's Hmong, which included child soldiers, were paid pennies a day.

"Everyone of them (Hmong) that died, that was an American back home that didn't die," Edgar Buell, a notorious U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) official working with the Hmong mercenaries, said in 1979.

The CIA's use of Laos as a massive killing zone is a sensitive subject within the intelligence agency.

For example, the CIA's online "World Factbook," updated on July 11, says: "In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of the government, ending a six-century-old monarchy and instituting a strict socialist regime closely aligned to Vietnam."

There is no mention of the CIA -- or even America's 15-year-long war -- against the communists in Laos.

When Lao communists kicked out the CIA and achieved victory in 1975, an estimated 300,000 Lao, many of them Hmong, fled to Thailand to escape punishment, which included brutal re-education camps where many victims perished.

Most of those who fled Laos gained entry to the United States, Australia, Canada, France and elsewhere.

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is