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Bush and Vietnam's prime minister meet amid protests

WASHINGTON—As hundreds of Vietnamese-Americans protested outside the White House gates Tuesday, President Bush welcomed Vietnam's prime minister to the Oval Office, praising the new relationship between the former enemy nations and announcing that he'll visit communist Vietnam next year.

Prime Minister Phan Van Khai is the highest-ranking Vietnamese official to visit the White House since the Vietnam War ended more than 30 years ago. He stopped in Washington as part of a six-day U.S. trip focused on Vietnam's economic development, including its application for membership in the World Trade Organization. The trip commemorates the 10th anniversary of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam.

Khai also presided with U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez over the signing of five new agreements with U.S. firms to do business in Vietnam. Among the deals was Vietnam Airlines' purchase of four Boeing 787 airliners, valued at $500 million apiece.

He was expected to give a speech Wednesday night at a dinner co-hosted by the U.S. Vietnam Trade Council.

But the highlight of Khai's day in Washington was a 50-minute meeting with Bush. The president said he accepted Khai's invitation to make an official visit to Vietnam, which he'll do while attending next year's annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital.

President Clinton in 2000 became the first U.S. president to visit the country, which merged North and South Vietnam after the 1964-75 war.

In brief remarks at the end of their meeting, Bush said he and Khai discussed economic relations, Vietnam's desire to join the WTO (which the United States supports), security issues related to the war on terror, HIV/AIDS in Vietnam, and the search for the remains of U.S. troops still listed as missing in action.

Bush also said he and Khai "signed a landmark agreement that will make it easier for people to worship freely" in Vietnam.

Announced by the State Department last month, the agreement calls on Vietnam to live up to a recent decree that prohibits government officials from forcing people to renounce their faith and makes it easier for religious congregations to open houses of worship. Vietnam is on the State Department's list of "countries of particular concern" because of "ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom."

Khai, 71, alluded to the issue in his brief comments, saying he and Bush "agreed that there remain differences between our two countries due to the different conditions that we have, the different histories and cultures. But we also agreed that we should work together through constructive dialogue based upon mutual respect to reduce those differences in order to improve our bilateral relations."

Human rights and religious freedom were on the minds of about 800 angry protesters outside the White House. They waved giant red-and-yellow flags of the former South Vietnam and chanted, "Phan Van Khai, Go Home!" and "Freedom for Vietnam!" They hanged an effigy of former North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. And Jacques Nhan Nguyen, 70, of San Jose, Calif., the president of the Vietnamese Democracy Education Foundation, tore up the flag of communist Vietnam.

"This is a murderer's flag," Nguyen said. "Send him back to Vietnam."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050620 Vietnam

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