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Bush says he'll visit Vietnam in '06


WASHINGTON - As hundreds of Vietnamese-Americans protested outside the White House yesterday, President Bush welcomed Vietnam's prime minister to the Oval Office, praising the new relationship between the former enemy nations and announcing 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 tonight at a dinner where the U.S. Vietnam Trade Council was to serve as co-host.

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 1964-1975 war.

In 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 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. The agreement calls on Vietnam to live up to a recent decree that prohibits government officials from forcing people to renounce their faith.

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