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Vietnam Considers Navy Exercises with US, as Hospital Ship Visits

A senior U.S. Navy admiral says Vietnam is considering fresh offers he made this week for joint naval exercises. The admiral made the offers during the first ever visit to Vietnam by one of the U.S. Navy's hospital ships. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Speaking from the USNS Mercy hospital ship off the Vietnamese coast, Vice Admiral Doug Crowder told reporters here he had a "very warm" meeting with the head of the Vietnamese Navy (Nguyen Van Hien) on Thursday in Haiphong, and discussed expanding U.S.-Vietnamese naval engagement.

"We didn't strike any specific projects," he said. "We just agreed that we would work through our own agencies, our own governments. I made many offers to involve them in some exercises. In fact, this very week they have five of their officers observing one of our bi-lateral exercises down in Singapore, as our guests."

Admiral Crowder says Vietnamese officers have observed U.S. naval exercises with other countries in the region several times, and seem to be ready to participate. He would like to get them involved next summer in annual bi-lateral exercises his Seventh Fleet conducts with Southeast Asian countries, starting with something simple.

"We would probably be looking at search and rescue as far as a first exercise with the Vietnamese," said Admiral Crowder. "So we could start at a level such as search and rescue and work our way up, as we've done with many of the countries out here."

Admiral Crowder, who commands U.S. naval forces in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, says he would have to know about six months in advance whether Vietnam wants to participate in next summer's exercises.

The admiral's visit came near the end of the U.S. hospital ship's approximately 10-day visit to Vietnam. He reports the Mercy treated more than 8,000 patients, and conducted more than 200 surgical procedures in its operating rooms, nearly half of them to fix cleft lips and palates of Vietnamese children.

Officials say the ship's crew of military and civilian doctors, nurses, dentists and technicians also helped repair clinics and medical equipment on shore, trained health care workers and helped renovate an orphanage.

The ship already visited the Philippines during this deployment, and will go on to East Timor, Papua New Guinea and Micronesia. The mission's commander, Captain Bill Kearns, says relationships built during such visits also help make emergency operations more effective, such as responses to natural disasters.

The Mercy's visit to Vietnam came as the country's prime minister was in Washington to meet with President Bush on Tuesday. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said they agreed to increase cooperation on the search for American troops missing from the Vietnam War, and on clearing mines and easing the impact of a U.S. defoliant called Agent Orange. President Bush welcomed improvements in religious and political freedom in Vietnam.