US warships make first north Vietnam visit

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HAIPHONG, Vietnam, Nov 14 (Reuters) Two US Navy vessels today became the first American warships to visit northern Vietnam in peacetime, entering Haiphong port which US forces mined and bombed in the Vietnam War 40 years ago.

The courtesy call of mine warfare ships USS Patriot and USS Guardian in communist-ruled Vietnam is the latest in a series of ship visits at a time of warm relations between Hanoi and Washington.

A training ship, USS Golden Bear, visited Haiphong in July, the US Embassy in Hanoi said.

The USS Patriot and USS Guardian were to remain in Haiphong until Sunday, with the crews playing volleyball with a Vietnamese Navy team and visiting schools for blind and deaf children, officials said.

''The ships usually go south but these are the first military ships to make an official visit to a northern port since normalisation of relations in 1995,'' an embassy spokeswoman said.

Since Washington and Hanoi established diplomatic ties, other US ships have stopped in Danang and Ho Chi Minh City, the latter the former Saigon and capital of US-backed South Vietnam.

The United States supported a South Vietnam government through the 1960s until it was overthrown by North Vietnamese forces in 1975 and the communists unified the Southeast Asian country.

Haiphong was heavily bombed during the war. In May 1972, the harbour was mined by US Navy planes, sealing it until US forces removed them after a 1973 ceasefire agreement.

Haiphong, a city of about 1.5 million and 100 km (62 miles) east of Hanoi, was largely rebuilt after the destruction of US bombing in December 1972.

It is close to the Gulf of Tonkin, where in August 1964 the US accused North Vietnam boats of firing on the destroyer, USS Maddox.

The US Congress then passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that allowed President Lyndon Johnson to wage war against North Vietnam without a declaration of war by Congress.

In the 12 years since the lifting of a trade embargo and diplomatic relations, US-Vietnam ties have grown, mostly through trade, but include cooperation on health and education.

US President George W Bush visited Hanoi in November 2006 and President Nguyen Minh Triet went to the White House in June.

REUTERS SV RK0958

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