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Little Saigon Fears Stoked by Arson; Group Takes Blame

Times Staff Writer

Travel agencies in Orange County’s Little Saigon that have booked tours to Vietnam expressed fear Tuesday, a day after a group calling itself “Special Group April 30" claimed responsibility for destroying a Vietnamese travel agency by arson.

“Hey look, why do I want my name and the name of my travel agency appearing in a newspaper?” a Little Saigon travel agent asked. “Of course we’re scared here. We also have a mail slot.”

The owner was referring to how a container of gasoline was slipped through a mail slot to start Friday’s 3 a.m. blaze that gutted the Travelworld Agency and two adjacent businesses at the corner of Magnolia Street and Westminster Avenue.

Owners Feel Intimidated

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Many travel agency owners said they feel intimidated and worried by the apparent emergence of the so-called Special Group April 30, which sent a letter to Vietnamese newspapers Monday, saying it had punished Travelworld for booking tours to Vietnam “in collaboration with the butchers of Hanoi.”

April 30 is the date that Saigon fell to Communist forces in 1975.

While the group claimed responsibility for only the Travelworld arson, there has been a series of unsolved arson attacks against businesses in the Little Saigon commercial area.

Friday’s fire was started with a gasoline container “near the front door” of Travelworld, which is owned by Tran Hung Vuong, who is also know as Victor Tran, said Capt. Willie Dumas of the Garden Grove Fire Department. He did not elaborate, but Vietnamese travel agency owners who were interviewed said they were told by firefighters that a container of gasoline had been slipped through a mail slot.

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Police in Westminster and Garden Grove said they had not heard of the group but fear that the group may be tied to the Party to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation, a terrorist organization believed to have been responsible for at least 10 violent U.S. crimes since January, 1980.

“Philosophically, this new group is in the same place as (the Party to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation) and probably has some crossover members,” said Lt. Mike Ratliff, with the Westminster Police Department.

The most recent violence by the Party to Exterminate Communists was the Aug. 9, 1987, firebombing of the Garden Grove office of a Vietnamese-language entertainment magazine. Its editor, Tap Van Pham, was killed.

Since the government of Vietnam opened travel to tourists 2 years ago, travel agencies in Little Saigon have booked hundreds of tours. Business, which was brisk at first, slowed after some county Vietnamese leaders protested that such travel helps the Hanoi government and also jeopardizes freedom for thousands of Vietnamese exiles in refugee camps who seek entry to the United States because they would be persecuted if returned to Vietnam.

A Vietnamese community leader said: “We have many Vietnamese refugees living in Orange County who qualified to come to the U.S. because they proved they would be persecuted if they returned home. If we have a large number going back as tourists and visiting relatives in Vietnam, how can the United States believe our claims of persecution?”

Attack Linked With Tet

Law enforcement experts said that although they have not reached firm conclusions, the timing of the current attack--just 2 weeks before Tet, the Vietnamese New Year’s--adds fuel to a belief that the arson at Travelworld was politically inspired.

“It’s my experience that this is a good way to rekindle a fear in the community, that with Tet so near, that quite possibly the timing was intentional,” said Westminster Detective Marcus Frank, an expert on Asian crime.

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However, Frank and other law enforcement sources said that despite protests against travel to Vietnam, there had not been a significant reduction in business before Friday’s fire.

Travelworld was one of two travel agencies in Little Saigon that had booked an increasing number of travel requests to Vietnam. The other agency was forced to file a lawsuit last year after demonstrators prevented customers from entering the office during weekly protests.

Dumas, the Garden Grove Fire Department arson investigator, said his department had not received the letter from the group claiming responsibility.

Is It ‘a Real Group’?

“We don’t even know if that’s a real group or not,” he said. “It could be anybody claiming responsibility. It’s still too early in the investigation.”

Damage to Tran’s offices and the adjacent businesses was estimated at $400,000.


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