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7 U.S. warships to visit Hong Kong

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HONG KONG — The Chinese government agreed to let seven U.S. warships stop in Hong Kong next month — as Beijing and Washington put the spy plane crisis further behind them.

The USS Constellation battle group, with 6,500 sailors aboard, received clearance for a routine port call here from Aug. 20-25, U.S. Consulate spokeswoman Barbara Zigli said today.

Zigli declined comment on the significance of the visit, which was approved Thursday — the same day that two small American warships arrived in Hong Kong in the first U.S. military port call since the April 1 spy plane crisis harmed relations between the United States and China.

Beijing refused the first request by the U.S. Navy to let a ship visit Hong Kong after the American spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, killing the Chinese pilot.

After NATO forces bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, Beijing refused entry for 10 U.S. warships before the Americans could resume with their port calls.

Hong Kong has long been a popular port of call for U.S. sailors, and the feuding between Washington and Beijing had upset the owners of local bars, restaurants and shops who count on the military visits for business.

Zigli said the ships to stop here in August are the USS Constellation, an aircraft carrier; the USS Thach, a frigate; the USS Kinkaid and USS Benfold, both destroyers; the USS Rainier and USS Kiska, both supply ships; and the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear submarine.

Hong Kong has been governed with a great deal of local autonomy since Britain handed it back to China four years ago, but Beijing maintains control over military and foreign affairs.