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Bush prods Vietnam's president on human rights

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush, hosting Vietnam’s president in a historic visit on Friday, welcomed warmer relations with a former U.S. enemy but warned that Hanoi must improve its human rights record if it wants to deepen trade ties.

Vietnam's president Nguyen Minh Triet shakes hands with President Bush in the Oval Office, June 22, 2007. Triet's visit is the first for a president of the communist-led country to the United States since the Vietnam War. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Chanting “Freedom for Vietnam, now, now, now,” hundreds of democracy activists gathered across the street from the White House to protest Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet’s communist-ruled, one-party government.

Many wore T-shirts that said “Stop kangaroo court in Vietnam and showed guards muffling the mouth of Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest and democracy activist, who was sentenced to eight years imprisonment in March.

Triet’s trip is the first by Vietnamese head of state since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. His meeting with Bush in the Oval Office was another step by both countries to move beyond the painful history of the war.

The Vietnamese president is especially keen to bolster a burgeoning trade relationship with the United States, Vietnam’s biggest export market.

Bush praised Vietnam’s transformation into fast-growing economy. But both he and Triet acknowledged differences over human rights in Vietnam.

“I explained to the president we want to have good relations with Vietnam and we’ve got good economic relations,” Bush told reporters after the meeting.

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“I also made it very clear that in order for relations to grow deeper that it’s important for our friends to have a strong commitment to human rights, freedom and democracy.”

For his part, Triet described the exchange over democracy as “direct and open” but added, “we are also determined not to let those differences afflict our overall, larger interest.”

Triet, who signed a trade and investment pact with the United States on Thursday, told U.S. business leaders in New York that Vietnam would “widely open our arms” to American investment.

But the White House has been expressing concern about human rights in Vietnam, in particular over the arrests of political dissidents and restrictions on religious freedoms.

In addition to their economic ties, Vietnam and the United States share some strategic interests, with both wary of China’s rise. But neither leader mentioned China in their comments to reporters.

In November Bush became the second U.S. president, after Bill Clinton, to visit Vietnam since the war. Vietnam and the United States established diplomatic relations in 1995.

As part of his Washington visit, Triet also met lawmakers on Capitol Hill who pressed complaints about human rights.

Since May 10, Vietnam has freed three people who Washington wanted released from imprisonment or detention. White House national security adviser Gordon Johndroe said the releases were a “good step” but added, “There’s probably some more to do.”

Another sensitive issue that came up in the talks were Hanoi’s concerns about the lingering effects of wartime “agent orange” dioxin sprayed by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to defoliate jungles used by communist troops.

Dioxin is a small compound within the “agent orange” herbicide and is one of the most toxic compounds known.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Beasley, Paul Eckert and Matt Spetalnick