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WAR HEROES ARE HONORED IN VIETNAM

The government honored its war heroes at a festive ceremony Friday, starting off a weekend of celebrations to mark the Communist victory in the Vietnam War 20 years ago.

A group of 82 veterans, including 14 women, were greeted at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi by a 60-man military brass band and schoolgirls in blue skirts and red pioneer scarves waving bouquets of roses.Inside, the veterans were met by Vietnam's top three leaders: Communist Party secretary general Do Muoi, President Le Duc Anh and Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet.

"Difficulties and challenges lie ahead requiring the tradition of patriotism, heroism and hard work in our efforts to move the country forward to fight poverty and backwardness," Kiet said.

Among those honored was Nguyen Thanh Trung, a fighter pilot in the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government who is now hailed as an intelligence officer working for the Communist North Vietnam during the war.

In the spring of 1975, Trung, flying an F-5E jet, bombed the presidential palace in Saigon, which is now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Trung, 48, now a civilian pilot for Vietnam Airlines, was not present at the ceremony today.

On April 30, 1975, Communist forces marched into Saigon soon after the last U.S. citizens and other foreigners evacuated the city aboard American aircraft. That ended the war, and South and North Vietnam were united under the Communist government.

Although April 30 is a major holiday in Vietnam, celebrations this year are low-key. Thrift is the official reason, but Vietnam also appears keen to boost relations with the United States as it seeks foreign investments in line with free market reforms.

Much of the celebrations will now shift to Ho Chi Minh City, where events will last only a few days. The main ones are dragon dances, outdoor concerts, speeches by Communist party leaders and more ceremonies to honor dead soldiers.

The mayor of Ho Chi Minh City, Truong Tan Sang, said today that Vietnam's pride in its reunification 20 years ago should not be seen as evidence of hostility toward the United States.

"I can assure you that we would not do anything to invoke the ghost of past animosity between our two countries," he said.

The Vietnam War killed almost 2 million civilians, 1.1 million North Vietnamese soldiers, 223,748 South Vietnamese troops and about 58,000 U.S. personnel.

Although the United States does not have full diplomatic ties with Vietnam, bilateral relations are vastly improved. Last year, President Clinton ended a 19-year economic embargo, and the two nations set up liaison offices in each other's capitals in January.

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CROSSROADS

A series of articles, "Vietnam: The war that lasts forever," is available online. Search for document XVIET1.