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10 July 2010

Laos to US-first time

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The foreign minister of Laos will visit Washington next week in the first such trip since the Vietnam War era as the United States seeks to renew influence in Southeast Asia, diplomats said Friday.

Thongloun Sisoulith, who also doubles as deputy prime minister, will spend several days in Washington and is likely to meet Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, diplomats told AFP.

It will be the first visit by a senior Laotian official since communists took over the landlocked country in 1975 with the support of Vietnam, which was fresh from routing the US-backed government in Saigon.

Relations, while never severed, were tense for years as Washington voiced concern over Laos's campaign against the Hmong, hill people who assisted US forces during the Vietnam War, and the fate of US troops missing in action.

But the United States established normal trade ties with Laos in 2004 and President Barack Obama last year removed restrictions on US loans for companies doing business in the landlocked country.

China has been seeking to expand influence in Southeast Asia and has also tried to repair sometimes uneasy relations with neighboring Laos. China's Vice President and heir apparent Xi Jinping visited Laos last month.

Beijing has also pledged to invest in Laotian infrastructure, which would help transport Chinese goods to key regional hub Thailand.

The Obama administration has put a new focus on Southeast Asia, saying the region was overlooked as George W. Bush's former administration became preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US officials, however, have also asked Laos to ensure the Hmong's safety. Some 250,000 Hmong have resettled in the United States and often allege continued persecution of their minority group in Laos.

Democratic Senator Al Franken, whose state of Minnesota has a large Hmong community, visited Laos this week and said he urged officials to allow 158 Hmong who are internationally recognized as refugees to leave the country.

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