They appear to have succeeded, producing the most deadly assault in Laos involving foreign victims since 1997, when five people, including a French tour operator, were gunned down on the same road: Route 13, a well-traveled thoroughfare that connects Vientiane, the capital in the south, to Luang Prabang, the former capital in the north. Foreign embassies in Laos had previously issued travel warnings based on fears of bandit attacks. Recently, however, those warnings were downgraded, and Route 13 was deemed safe.
That perception was shattered last Wednesday morning at a rest stop five kilometers north of Vang Vieng. Around 8:30 a.m., the gunmen—as many as 30, say witnesses—jumped out from behind bushes along the road. Waving their guns, they stopped a crowded public bus, several cars, a tractor and the two Europeans who were heading north on a bike trip. Survivors claim the gunmen fired M-16s and grenades from rocket launchers, then stepped over fallen bodies and executed the wounded. The two Europeans, who have yet to be identified, tried desperately to flee on their mountain bikes. One was shot repeatedly in the back. His partner bled to death after a bullet apparently ruptured an artery in her leg.
The attack will inevitably scare off many tourists, thus depriving the impoverished state of a rare source of foreign currency. Yet, in the immediate aftermath, authorities acted as if catching the killers was at best a secondary concern. According to Western diplomatic officers, local police were busily cleaning up the ambush site instead of collecting evidence or interviewing witnesses. By midday, phone lines were cut in Vang Vieng, and the road around the town sealed. "They were trying to hush it up," claims a diplomatic official, to "pretend it didn't happen."
Denial is nothing new for the notoriously hermetic state. Past cases of violence such as the 1997 shootings and a spate of bombings in Vientiane in 2000 have never been solved. Typically, authorities blame minority Hmong rebels opposed to the government, whether or not proof exists. This time, however, if the government and police muster up the will, they could make a stronger case. Survivors say the attackers looked Hmong and spoke the Hmong language. And one military officer claims the killers left a calling card lying on the European woman's corpse.
It read: "We have lost our nation and are fighting to get it back." True or not, the roads of Laos will be seeing a lot less traffic.