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Bush Backs Vietnam for WTO

George Bush meets with Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in the Oval Office
President Bush is backing Vietnam's efforts to join the World Trade Organization. Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai met with Mr. Bush at the White House in the first visit to America by a Vietnamese leader since the end of the Vietnam War 30 years ago.

The president says the historic meeting in the Oval Office was a constructive visit between the leaders of two nations with a mutual desire to cooperate in the fight against terrorism.

Noting what he called Vietnam's substantial economic growth, President Bush backed the communist country's push to join the World Trade Organization, something that Prime Minister Khai said would benefit both Vietnam and the United States.

In the 10 years since the countries restored diplomatic relations, the United States has become Vietnam's top trading partner, with more than six billion dollars worth of commerce between the countries last year.

Several hundred Vietnamese protesters outside the White House gates denounced the president's support for Vietnam joining the WTO, with some waving signs saying "No human rights. No trade."

The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch says Prime Minister Khai's government abuses dissidents under arrest for promoting democracy and human rights.

Some congressional Republicans are critical of the Bush administration's closer military and economic ties to Vietnam given concerns over human rights.

The U.S. State Department says the country is easing curbs on religious freedom and is releasing some in detention for their religious beliefs.

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office after their meeting, President Bush said he and the prime minister signed what he called a landmark agreement that will make it easier for people to worship freely in Vietnam.

Mr. Bush also thanked Prime Minister Khai for cooperation in the search for the remains of U.S. servicemen killed during the Vietnam War.

"I want to thank the prime minister for his government's willingness to continue to work on finding the remains of those who lost their lives in Vietnam," the president said. "It is very comforting to many families here in America to understand that the government is providing information to help close a sad chapter in their lives."

Prime Minister Khai said he was honored to be the first Vietnamese leader to visit the White House since the end of that war.

Mr. Khai said the visit shows that relations have entered a new stage of development despite outstanding differences.

"There remain differences between our two countries due to the different conditions that we have, the different histories and cultures," he said. "But we also agreed that we should work together through constructive dialogue based on mutual respect to reduce the differences in order to improve our bilateral relations."

President Bush will visit Vietnam next year when the country hosts the 2006 meeting of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC.