The Center for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA) said the unarmed highland Hmong women were "summarily executed" on Thursday in northeastern Xieng Khouang province by soldiers from a special 150-member unit of the Lao People's Army (LPA) led by Vietnamese secret police and military advisers.

The government troops confiscated the group's only Bible, "brutally and repeatedly raped" at least two of the younger women before shooting them at point blank range with automatic weapons in the head and torso, it added.

Their husbands and 26 children were forced to witness the killings and have since disappeared after being beaten and tied up.

CPPA executive director Philip Smith denounced what he called a "tragic and major upswing" in religious persecution in Laos at the hands of Vietnamese and Laotian military and Communist Party officials over the past year.

"In a coordinated and expanded fashion, the Vietnam People's Army and LPA troops and security forces are especially determined to hunt down and kill independent Christian and animist believers in the highlands of Vietnam and Laos," he added.

Smith pointed to a "very dramatic" increase in persecution, imprisonment, torture and killing of Lao and Hmong Christians for celebrating Christmas or worshipping independently, as well as independent Buddhist and animist believers in the provinces of Vientiane, Khammoune, Saravan, Xieng Khouang, Luang Prabang and other regions in Laos.

Communist regimes have ruled in Vietnam and Laos since 1975. Many officials in Hanoi consider neighboring Laos an important part of their defense strategy, and the militaries of the two countries have long maintained close ties.

"We want the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Vietnam People's Army to remove all of its security forces and troops from Laos, and we want the Lao military and communist regime to respect the human rights and religious freedom of the Laotian and Lao Hmong people," said Bounthanh Rathigna of the United League for Democracy in Laos.

Laotian officials are also said to have destroyed crops in February to cut off about 60 impoverished Christians from their food supply in rural Saravan province. CPPA also cited reports of Christians being driven from their village at gunpoint.

Agence France Presse - April 15, 2011