Thursday, June 23, 2005

U.S. military specialists will return to Vietnam to train its soldiers 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, this time offering medical, technical and language support under an agreement struck with the Pentagon during Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s visit to Washington.

Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan told editors and reporters at a breakfast interview yesterday at The Washington Times that under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) agreement, U.S. soldiers would be welcome to learn from the Vietnamese.

Mr. Khoan emphatically denied that any live American prisoners of war remain in Vietnam. Several U.S. POW/MIA groups disagree. The lobby group Rolling Thunder Inc. said the last sighting of a live American POW in Vietnam occurred in the late 1990s.

There are “absolutely no” POWs living in Vietnam, the deputy prime minister said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stopped briefly at the Willard Hotel on Tuesday evening to meet with Mr. Khai, a Pentagon official said.

The visit ended with an agreement on military-to-military training, capping a series of contacts between the two countries’ military establishments, said Mr. Khoan, speaking through a translator.

“We have agreed that Vietnam will take part in the IMET military training program,” said Mr. Khoan, using the acronym for a program that promotes military-to-military relations to increase cooperation and understanding between the United States and foreign countries.

“At the initial stage, we will receive support in training our military in terms of English, and some of the medical staff and technical staff,” he said.

Defense spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Greg Hicks said that details of the IMET working-level proposal still had to be worked out.

“Both sides see this as another step in the development of normal bilateral military relations,” he said, adding that the agreement “will open the door to more exchanges and opportunities of mutual value.”

“It could include a more robust military-to-military relationship,” said Cmdr. Hicks. He declined to give further details. But the deputy prime minister said there was no desire to talk about establishing U.S. bases in Vietnam.

Mr. Khoan laughed at the idea that there were any American POWs left alive in Vietnam.

“I would really admire you if you could find any POW alive,” he said. “If we think logically, I do not understand why we should keep any POW. Because we have now sat down with [President Bush], we don’t have anything else to bargain.”

Mr. Khoan described Mr. Khai’s visit with Mr. Bush as a “historical moment” that had brought the two countries to “significant common understandings on many issues.”

The communist officials also met with a number of American business leaders, cutting deals with Microsoft and pushing Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

“President Bush expressed his strong support for that bid,” Mr. Khoan said. He “recognizes differences” between Washington and Hanoi on religious freedoms and human rights, the deputy prime minister said, but he dismissed accusations that Vietnam has consistently abused those rights, and accused the Montagnards based in the United States of being secessionists.

“They want to establish another state on Vietnamese soil and that is something that is unacceptable to us,” said Mr. Khoan.

He said that in trying to help the poor in the central highlands — home to the Montagnards — the lives of local people had been disturbed, but that the government was now trying to redress those mistakes.

The Montagnards believe they are being persecuted for their close cooperation with U.S. Special Forces during the Vietnam War and for their Christian faith. In March of this year, Human Rights Watch said Vietnamese police had raided Montagnard villages, ransacking homes, beating women and children, and arresting house church leaders.

“I think they are exaggerating, because they are sitting here or somewhere else, not in Vietnam,” Mr. Khoan said.

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