FRESNO -- A revered leader of the Hmong immigrant community urged his people to remain united in his first public appearance in California since he was arrested on accusations of attempting to overthrow the communist government in Laos.
Former Laotian Gen. Vang Pao addressed thousands of supporters Wednesday at Fresno's Hmong International New Year celebration, believed to be the largest of its kind in the United States.
The 78-year-old general thanked Hmong immigrants for their support, but he did not address allegations that he helped lead an elaborate coup attempt organized by Laotian refugees in the United States.
Vang Pao, who led thousands of Hmong mercenaries in a CIA-backed secret army during the Vietnam War, is one of 11 men who was accused in the suspected plot and arrested by federal agents in June.
Since July, when he was freed on bail, he rarely has left his home in Southern California.
A crowd of people dressed in traditional clothes parted as his limousine arrived, and they clapped as the general ushered in the Hmong new year, which began Wednesday.
"Friends and family, in the last six months we haven't seen each other, and I know that you have missed me," Vang Pao said, addressing the crowd in Hmong. "I have missed you, too. I remember your love."
Organizers of this year's festival said they expected record attendance given the community's distress over the case. Among those charged in the indictment is the founder of Fresno's annual new year celebration, who didn't attend Wednesday's event because he was under orders not to associate with Vang Pao and other defendants if lawyers weren't present, a friend said.
"Everybody feels that we have been betrayed," said Pao Fang, executive director of the Lao Family Community, a Fresno-based nonprofit that provides vocational training to the area's sizable immigrant community. "The general is the one who has most sacrificed and he who was fighting to protect U.S. democ- racy."
Though Vang Pao's guerrillas ultimately lost to communist forces, most Hmong veterans regard him as a hero.
"As a former soldier, this is so meaningful for me to be able to see my leader," said Nhailong Vang, who marched in the new year parade wearing fatigues. "He will be the one who will help us move forward in America."
Tens of thousands of Hmong immigrated to the United States after the war, the majority settling in California, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
But prosecutors claim that the general and other men never accepted the communist government that took power in their native Laos and plotted to buy nearly $10 million worth of machine guns, anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons to overthrow the regime.
If convicted of violating the Neutrality Act and of conspiracy and weapons charges, they face the possibility of life in prison.
The federal court will take up the case again Feb. 20.