* U.N. refugee agency calls for end of three-year detention * Group of 158 face forced deportation to Laos
* Four countries including U.S. have offered to take them in
GENEVA, Nov 17 (Reuters) - The United Nations on Tuesday urged Thailand to end the three-year detention of 158 ethnic Hmong from Laos and let them resettle in the West.
The detainees, rounded up in Bangkok for deportation on Nov. 17, 2006, are being held in two cells in an immigration detention centre in Nong Khai on the Mekong River border with Laos, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.
The UNHCR has recognised them as refugees deserving asylum, but Thai authorities say that they are economic migrants facing deportation to Laos.
"Four countries — the United States, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands — have offered resettlement places to the refugees, and we believe they should be allowed to leave Thailand for resettlement," said UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic.
"They have not committed any crime and their detention serves no purpose," he told a news briefing in Geneva.
Known as America’s "forgotten allies", the Hmong were recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to fight alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
When the Pathet Lao communists took power in 1975, the Hmong exodus began. Human rights groups say some of the Hmong could face persecution back home due to possible links to the anti-communist resistance.
The group, which includes babies born in detention, are "part of the legacy left by a troubled past", Mahecic said. "We don’t want to see them forcibly returned," he told Reuters. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jonathan Lynn)