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Vietnamese officials ready to sign landmark trade deal with the U.S.

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HANOI (Reuters) — Vietnam's Trade Minister Vu Khoan has been given the go-ahead to sign a landmark trade pact with the United States, government officials said on Thursday.

The Vietnamese officials, who did not want to be named, said the signing schedule would depend on U.S. President Clinton's being able to find time away from Middle East talks at his Camp David retreat in Maryland.

But they said the signing could be held at the White House on Thursday night or Friday, Washington time.

The agreement after more than four years of negotiations would reduce tariffs on goods and services, protect intellectual property and improve investment relations between the two countries, enemies in the Vietnam War that ended in 1975.

It would be one of the most important economic milestones for communist-ruled Vietnam since it embarked on market reforms in the late 1980s and boost its bid to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

It would also mark a major step toward completing the normalisation process that began five years ago on July 11, 1995, when Clinton extended diplomatic ties to Hanoi.

"As I understand, the minister of trade of Vietnam has got the green light to sign today in the evening Washington time—on the 13th of July in the evening at the White House," one Vietnamese source said.

"The American side needs to negotiate with the president's protocol because he's busy in Maryland at Camp David. But I think it will proceed."

However, another government official said the signing could take place on Friday, Washington time.

Both Vietnam and the United States have remained officially silent on the issue since trade sources said on Wednesday in Washington they planned to sign the long-delayed pact this week or early next having reached an agreement in principle.

"At the moment we don't have any thing to say," said Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh.

The first source said he understood both sides had finished checking the Vietnamese-language version of the agreement and all technical work after more than a week of talks. "We will hear very soon from the signing," he said.

"It's great. It's a very important step towards additional reform and economic integration. It will provide a strong signal to the strong commitment of Vietnam to further reform."

He declined to give full details of the accord, but said several points had been changed from an agreement in principle last year from which Vietnam subsequently backed away.

"Both sides have negotiated and they have now reached a consensus for mutual benefit. Several points have changed in this consensus. I know on the textile quotas and also on the share of the telecommunications."

He said that on telecommunications, for example, the new text reduced the share a U.S firm could take in a Vietnamese telecom firm from 51 percent to 50 percent.

He said China's experience reaching a trade pact with Washington and its prospects for joining the WTO had been instructive for Hanoi in deciding to sign, as had visits to Europe this year by Communist Party leader Le Kha Phieu.

U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, a key proponent of the pact, left Hanoi late on Wednesday for Washington and was expected to arrive there on Thursday evening.

"Things were looking optimistic, so he went back," a U.S. embassy official said.