- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

Vietnam improving

The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam thinks the communist nation is showing greater respect for religious liberty and could be removed from a U.S. list of nations that violate the rights of their citizens to worship freely.

Vietnam was designated as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) two years ago because of its repeated repression of all religions. Since then, the government has released some prisoners convicted of violating laws on religion and removed bans on some churches, Ambassador Michael Marine said.

“We are exploring conditions under which CPC [status] could be lifted. I think that’s a possibility for this year if certain things were to happen, but a decision hasn’t been made,” he told reporters in Hanoi.

The State Department’s annual human rights report cited some improvement in religious rights but noted that the government remains repressive. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom accused Vietnam of “systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Mr. Marine said removing Vietnam from the list also would improve the chances that Congress will grant normal trading status to the Southeast Asian nation. That also would boost Vietnam’s chances of joining the World Trade Organization.

“Obviously, the timing could coincide or be close to each other. So one decision to lift CPC [status] would have some impact on Congress,” he said.

Leaving Iceland

The United States is planning to withdraw most of its forces from Iceland and remove all of its fighter planes and helicopters, U.S. Ambassador Carol van Voorst said yesterday.

She also said, however, that the United States will continue to guarantee Iceland’s security but did not give any details. The U.S. has provided Iceland’s complete defense since 1951 and has had a military base outside the capital of Reykjavik since World War II.

“As we have for half a century, we will stand with Iceland on any threats that arise,” the ambassador said in an interview with the Associated Press.

She said she and R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, conveyed Washington’s unilateral decision this week to Prime Minister Halldor Asgrimsson and Foreign Minister Geir H. Haarde, who said they regretted the U.S. action.

The aircraft will be removed by the end of September. About 1,200 U.S. troops are stationed there. The base costs the Defense Department about $250 million a year to operate.

‘Deep wrong’

The U.S. ambassador to Japan yesterday stood in the intersection of a coastal town where North Korean agents kidnapped a 13-year-old Japanese girl almost 30 years ago and declared that a “deep wrong” was committed against her and her family.

Ambassador Thomas Schieffer is the first U.S. envoy to visit the site in the Niigata district where Megumi Yokota was grabbed on her way home from school, Agence France-Presse reported from Tokyo. The secretive communist regime admitted the kidnapping of Miss Yokota and other Japanese citizens in 2002, but said she had died in North Korea.

Mr. Schieffer said he will report to President Bush about his visit.

“I just want to convey to him that sense of the deep wrong that has been done here, and I know what his response is going to be. He is a person who just does not believe that this sort of thing should be allowed to happen,” the ambassador said.

North Korea kidnapped more than a dozen Japanese citizens in the 1970s in a scheme to force them to teach its spies to speak Japanese. North Korea released five of the victims but said Miss Yokota and eight others died in captivity.

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