updated 6/4/2007 7:02:44 PM ET 2007-06-04T23:02:44

A former Laotian military general who helped the CIA wage covert war in Southeast Asia more than 30 years ago and a former officer in the California National Guard were charged Monday in federal court with plotting a violent overthrow of Laos' communist government.

Gen. Vang Pao, a prominent Hmong leader who lives in Orange County, was charged with conspiracy to topple Laos leaders in a case that reads like it was taken from the pages of a spy novel.

Also charged was former California National Guard Lt. Col. Harrison Ulrich Jack, a 1968 West Point graduate who was involved in covert operations during the Vietnam War. Jack acted as an arms broker and organizer of the plot, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court.

The group was raising money to recruit a mercenary force and buy enough weapons to equip a small army, including anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers, prosecutors allege.

"We're looking at conspiracy to murder thousands and thousands of people at one time," Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Twiss said in federal court Monday.

He said thousands of coconspirators remain at large.

Vang Pao, now 77, led CIA-backed Hmong forces in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s as a general in the Royal Army of Laos. He emigrated to the U.S. about 1975 and has been credited by thousands of Hmong refugees with helping them build new lives in the U.S.

Since then, however, he has been plotting to overthrow the government, according to the federal complaint.

Seven others, all prominent members of the Hmong community from California's Central Valley, also were charged Monday in federal court. The criminal complaint identified them as Lo Cha Thao of Clovis, a suburb of Fresno; Lo Thao of Sacramento County, who is president of United Hmong International, which the complaint says also is known as the Supreme Council of the Hmong 18 Clans; Youa True Vang of Fresno, founder of Fresno's Hmong International New Year; Hue Vang, a former Clovis police officer; Chong Yang Thao, a Fresno chiropractor; Seng Vue of Fresno and Chue Lo of Stockton, both of whom are clan representatives in United Hmong International.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly J. Mueller ordered all nine defendants to be held in custody until separate hearings later this week.

Vang Pao, of Westminster, was the alleged leader of the anti-communist plot, while Jack acted as the arms broker, according to the complaint. The attorneys for Vang Pao and Jack had no immediate comment after Monday's court proceeding.

The criminal complaint said Vang Pao and the other Hmong defendants formed a committee "to evaluate the feasibility of conducting a military expedition or enterprise to engage in the overthrow of the existing government of Laos by violent means, including murder, assaults on both military and civilian officials of Laos and destruction of buildings and property."

The committee acted through the Lao liberation movement known as Neo Hom, led in the U.S. by Vang Pao. It conducted extensive fundraising, directed surveillance operations and organized a force of insurgent troops within Laos, according to the complaint.

As recently as May, people acting on behalf of the committee were gathering intelligence about military installations and government buildings in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, according to prosecutors.

Since January, the Hmong leaders and Jack inspected shipments of military equipment that were to be purchased and shipped to Thailand, shipments that were scheduled for June 12 and June 19, the complaint alleged. That equipment included machine guns, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank rockets, stinger missiles, mines and C-4 explosives.

During a news conference after the defendants' court appearance, prosecutors displayed photographs of the weapons involved in the alleged plot. They showed a light anti-tank rocket system, a Stinger missile, Claymore mines and an AK-47 assault rifle.

The defendants also attempted to recruit a mercenary force that included former members of the Army special forces or Navy SEALs.

Jack worked full-time doing strategic planning for the California National Guard after retiring from active duty as a lieutenant colonel about 10 years ago.

He recently established the Hmong Emergency Relief Organization, a nonprofit committed to supporting the Hmong community. He also is president of the nonprofit Youth Development Academies of America.

In March, Jack was hired by Yolo County, near Sacramento, as an ombudsman to help employees who have concerns or problems with county officials. He earned a bachelor's degree in engineering from West Point in 1968.

Vang Pao has been a source of controversy elsewhere.

In April, a dispute erupted in Madison, Wis., over a proposal to name a new elementary school after him, a move intended to honor the area's large Hmong population. Dissenters said a school should not bear the name of a figure with such a violent history.

In 2002, the city of Madison dropped a plan to name a park in his honor after a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor cited numerous published sources alleging that Vang Pao had ordered executions of his own followers, of enemy prisoners of war and of his political enemies.

Spokesmen for Vang Pao and his followers denied the charges at the time.

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