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Stops OK’d at Hong Kong

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HONG KONG — China has granted permission for a pair of American warships to dock in Hong Kong, a U.S. official said Monday, reversing a two-year stance just days before the International Olympic Committee votes on which city will host the 2008 Olympics. Beijing is among the top contenders for the event.

China had refused requests for 10 U.S. ships to stop in Hong Kong since NATO's 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Most recently, in May, Beijing refused clearance for an anti-mine ship carrying 1,400 personnel to enter the port.

But China notified the United States last week that two smaller anti-mine ships can stop here from July 25-30, U.S. Consulate spokeswoman Barbara Zigli said.

"We view it as evidence of Hong Kong's special status and openness as an international city," Zigli said.

The International Olympic Committee is scheduled to vote Friday on which city will host the 2008 Summer Olympics. Beijing is considered the leading contender, with Toronto and Paris serious challengers.

The permission was granted Thursday, shortly after the pieces of the U.S. spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet on April 1 were flown away from China's Hainan Island. The U.S. crew was detained on Hainan, where they had made an emergency landing, for 11 days.

The decision to allow the warships would appear to indicate a lessening of the tensions that flared over the spy plane crisis that claimed the life of a Chinese pilot.

The warships intending to come to Hong Kong are the USS Guardian and USS Patriot, each carrying crews of 82, Zigli said.

Although Hong Kong was returned from Britain to China four years ago, it retains a great deal of local autonomy and Western-style freedoms and capitalism remain in place.

Beijing is firmly in charge of defense and foreign affairs, however, and it has in the past barred U.S. Navy ships to show unhappiness with China's often-touchy relationship with the United States.