China blocks USS Kitty Hawk carrier from Hong Kong

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HONG KONG, Nov 22 (Reuters) China has refused permission for a US aircraft carrier and accompanying vessels to visit Hong Kong for a long-planned Thanksgiving holiday visit, the US State Department said.

The Kitty Hawk group and its crew of 8,000 US airmen and sailors had been expected in Hong Kong Yesterday, but will now spend the holiday on the South China Sea.

Hundred of relatives of crew members of the USS Kitty Hawk had flown to Hong Kong to celebrate Thanksgiving with their loved ones. Hong Kong has been a regular port of call for US sailors on ''R&R'' (rest and recuperation) since the Vietnam War.

The Chinese move comes as a surprise just weeks after a visit to China by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which he said he hoped would lead to a long-term dialogue.

''At present, it appears the USS Kitty Hawk strike group will not be making a port call in Hong Kong as previously planned as a result of a last minute denial by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs,'' State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said.

The United States was pressing China for an explanation and to reconsider its decision, she added.

There are several possible sources of discontent that may have prompted the decision -- including US plans to sell Taiwan a 940 million dollars upgrade to its missile system and a meeting last month between US President George W Bush and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader who Beijing considers a traitor.

The Foreign Ministry in Beijing declined to make an immediate comment.

Last year, a Chinese submarine surfaced uncomfortably close to the Kitty Hawk near the Japanese island of Okinawa, an incident that highlighted the potential for friction between the two powers.

''The US Consul General in Hong Kong is in touch with the Kitty Hawk families,'' said Anthony Hutchinson, a Public affairs director at the US Consulate in Hong Kong.

''I've seen some spouses and family come in, they're now sightseeing ... they'll adjust,'' said another US consular official who asked not to be named.

The move by Beijing coincides with ''airspace controls'' on Wednesday which Xinhua news agency said affected the air travel plans of 7,000 people in south and east China.

The controls were introduced for ''unspecified reasons''.

The Kitty Hawk, laid down in 1956, has the second longest active service of any ship in the US navy after the USS Constitution, a 208-year-old ceremonial sailing ship kept in Boston Harbour.

It is the only conventionally fuelled carrier in the US fleet and is due to be decommissioned next year.

REUTERS SZ RK1010

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