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Putin's visits re-insert Russia into Asia area

HANOI — Russian President Vladimir Putin wrapped up a two-country Asian tour on Friday that Kremlin officials said had helped put Russia back on the map in the region.

Putin visited South Korea, Moscow's former Cold War enemy, and Vietnam, one of its staunchest allies in the Soviet era.

The aim of the trip was to boost Russia's profile in a part of the world Moscow had largely neglected since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its trade and economic ties.

"Putin and our delegation departed with excellent feelings," a Kremlin official told Reuters just before the president headed back to Moscow on Friday afternoon after two days in Hanoi.

"The impression is very positive. We have made a considerable progress in Vietnam and South Korea."

Putin started his tour in Seoul on Monday, carrying Moscow's promise of support for South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's Nobel Peace Prize-winning efforts to thaw ties with the North.

He also pledged to forge deeper economic ties, including a plan to build a railroad link between Russia's Trans-Siberian Railroad and South Korea through the territory of North Korea that could help bring peace to the divided states.

In his visit to Vietnam, which started on Wednesday, Putin and his counterpart Tran Duc Luong declared a new strategic partnership covering military, trade and economic cooperation and Russia reported progress on resolving Hanoi's Soviet-era debt.

"An interesting thing about this tour is that it was rather economic," the Kremlin official said. "We spent less time on politics."

Putin, the first Kremlin chief ever to visit Vietnam despite close Cold War ties between Moscow and Hanoi, was pleased with his reception. Moscow's ITAR TASS news agency quoted him telling Luong before leaving for Moscow his visit had been "beyond all expectations."

Putin was warmly greeted by the Soviet-trained leadership of what is one of the world's last communist states and was given a rousing welcome when he spoke to thousands of Vietnamese students educated in the former Soviet Union.

Putin, who has been fighting since he became president a year ago to build an image as a pragmatic leader, discussed several energy projects with South Korea and Vietnam and also pitched weapons to Hanoi.

He praised the Russian-Vietnamese joint venture Vietsovpetro, which taps most of Vietnam's crude, as a rare success story in Russian oil projects abroad.

On Tuesday, South Korea and Russia agreed to boost cooperation on development of a major natural gas field in Siberia and oil fields on the east Russian island of Sakhalin.

South Korea has said it will take part in a huge gas pipeline project from the field in Siberia, which requires some $11 billion in investment and is to be developed by BP Amoco (BP.L). It is designed to ship natural gas to China.

Seoul said last year it may buy some 10 billion cubic metres of Russian gas annually from the pipeline.

Putin said Russia and Vietnam planned to expand cooperation on electricity generation and confirmed a $100 million Russian state loan for a Vietnamese hydropower plant.

Russian officials said two countries were mulling four electricity projects and would soon start discussion on the possible construction of a nuclear power station, Vietnam's first.

Hanoi expressed support for Putin's stance on U.S. missile defence while the Russian president said Vietnam wanted to buy new Russian armaments.

Putin said Moscow was willing to sell advanced weapons to the Vietnamese military, which has long been depended on Russian equipment.

Talks were expected on the strategic naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, on which Moscow's lease expires in 2004.

But deputy head of Kremlin administration, Sergei Prikhodko, said it was not discussed and an existing agreement signed in 1979 gave Russia the right to use the facility without payment.

Vietnam does not object to Russia's presence at the base but wants it to boost lease payments. Analysts say Washington and Beijing eye the facility enviously for its strategic and commercial potential.