U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed human rights and other issues in a meeting Thursday with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem. The Vietnamese government is accused of a new crackdown on political dissent. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The meeting here reflected a continued political rapproachment between the two former adversaries in the Indochina war.

But it came against a background of growing concern about alleged backsliding by the Vietnam's communist government on human rights.

The monitoring group Human Rights Watch said last week despite growing global recognition -- reflected in Vietnam's new membership in the World Trade Organization, and recent hosting of the APEC Pacific-rim summit -- the Hanoi government has embarked on one of its worst political crackdowns in 20 years.

It said among those arrested in recent weeks include two outspoken human rights lawyers and a dissident Roman Catholic priest.

At a photo opportunity with her Vietnamese counterpart, Secretary of State Rice declined to respond to reporters' questions about the issue.

However at a briefing just before the start of the meeting, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said human rights was at the top of Rice's agenda. "The Vietnamese have made some advances in that regard. They've made some advances with respect to religious freedoms in Vietnam. There have been, however, some detentions that have been of real concern to the United States and we have raised those issues with Vietnamese officials. Secretary Rice has done that in the past and I would expect that certainly a general discussion about human rights, if not a specific one about these cases, will take place during the meeting," he said.

U.S. officials said the talks also covered Southeast Asian regional issues, trade, and plans for a Washington visit by Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, who would be the country's first post-war head of state to come to the United States.

An agreement in principle for the trip was reached during President Bush's Hanoi visit for the APEC summit last November, but officials here said late Thursday they had no date to announce.

The United States and its former communist enemy normalized diplomatic relations in 1995 and President Bush extended normal trade relations to Hanoi at the end of last year.

Bilateral trade between the two countries now exceeds $12 billion a year. But Wednesday a leading congressional human rights advocate - New Jersey Republican Chris Smith - said Vietnam's recent behavior shows that trade and respect for human rights do not always go hand-in-hand. "I hope we finally get it, and I hope the administration gets it, and the congressmen on the Democrat and Republican side who have this naive belief that if you just trade, somehow that trading will matriculate (develop) into respect for human rights. It hasn't happened in China. It has not happened in Vietnam," he said.

Last November, the State Department removed Vietnam from a list of countries where serious violations of religious freedom are said to occur.

But in its annual report on human rights conditions world-wide, issued earlier this month, it said Vietnam's rights record remained unsatisfactory - noting that opposition movements are officially prohibited amid tightening controls over the press and internet.

Foreign Minister Khiem, who traveled to Washington with top officials of the Vietnamese ministries of transport, science, telecommunications and education, is also meeting U.S. legislators and businessmen during his visit.

During his State Department visit Thursday, officials of the two countries signed a maritime cooperation agreement.