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U.S. ship transits Taiwan Strait after China flap

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. aircraft carrier group sailed through the tense waters between China and Taiwan after it was denied entry last week to a Hong Kong port, the U.S. Navy said on Thursday.

The USS Kitty Hawk and eight accompanying ships passed through the Taiwan Strait, seen as one of Asia’s most dangerous flash points, on their way back to Japan after China barred the carrier group from entering the Hong Kong harbor for a long-planned visit, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii said.

“USS Kitty Hawk carrier strike group has transited the Taiwan Strait,” Navy spokesman Shane Tuck said. “This was a normal navigational transit of international waters, and the route selection was based on operational necessity, including adverse weather.”

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since their split in 1949 when Mao Zedong’s Communists drove Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Nationalists to the island.

Tensions between the two countries have played out in the strait several times since then, most recently when China conducted military exercises there in 1995 and 1996, prompting the United States to send warships there.

There has been speculation that China’s move to block the Kitty Hawk and the other ships was related to irritation over U.S. plans to help Taiwan upgrade its missile system and a meeting between Bush and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi has told President George W. Bush that the incident is a misunderstanding, according to the White House, but a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman denied that account on Thursday.

Editing by Philip Barbara