BANGKOK, Thailand -- Four American soldiers of fortune with the partial backing of actors Clint Eastwood and William Shatner led a secret mission into Laos, but failed to free 120 U.S. prisoners reportedly held there, reports and officials said Monday.
The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok refused comment, but intelligence sources in Bangkok confirmed reports from California and Thailand on the November mission, code-named 'Operation Lazarus.'
The Thai foreign ministry denounced the rescue attempt and said it was searching for those involved in the abortive mission, led by former U.S. Army Green Beret Lt. Col. James G. 'Bo' Gritz.
'The Thai government disapproves of 'Operation Lazarus' and the authorities are tracking down the people who carried out the operation,' the ministry said. 'They will be charged with illegal entry to the country and illegal arms possession.'
Reached by telephone in Los Angeles, Shatner admitted giving money to Gritz, but said it ws for movie rights to his story.
'Through a series of mutual friends, I met a man represented as one of the most interesting I'd meet in my life,' said Shatner, made famous by his portrayal of Captain James Kirk in 'Star Trek.'
'I met with him many times and I went to Paramount with whom I have a development deal,' Shatner said. 'I bought the film rights to Bo Gritz's story. It is now in fact at ABC and has been there a couple months.'
'I didn't finance an undercover operation, just the life story of a man with whom I became entrhalled,' he said.
Eastwood could not be reached for comment.
One of the American raiders, Charles J. Patterson, told the San Diego Union the mission ended shortly after the four Americans along with 15 Laotian guerrillas, armed only with four Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns, crossed into Laos the night of Nov. 27, 1982.
A guerrilla chieftain who was to have provided additional support turned up drunk, alone and without weapons, and Laotian paramilitary forces ambushed the band just across the border from the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom, 390 miles northeast of Bangkok.
One of the Americans, Dominic Zapone, was wounded and taken prisoner. He later was freed after a ransom of about $17,000 and medical supplies was paid.
Patterson said the rescue effort was launched after the raiders learned from Laotian refugees in Thailand that up to 120 American POWs from the Vietnam War were being held near the town of Tchepone, 135 air miles southeast of Nakhon Phanom.
Patterson said the U.S. government was not involved in the raid. He told the Los Angeles Times some of the money came from private contributions including $30,000 from Eastwood and $10,000 from Shatner.
The name of the fourth American involved in the raid was not available.