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Last Updated: Friday, 9 February 2007, 11:04 GMT
US ship's landmark Cambodia visit
By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Phnom Penh

The guided missile frigate USS Gary
The crew are to run outreach projects in the local community
The Cambodian port of Sihanoukville has given a warm welcome to a visit from the US Navy.

It is the first time since the Vietnam war that an American warship has docked in Cambodia.

The arrival of the USS Gary is a symbol of the closer military and political ties between the two states and part of a concerted charm offensive by the US.

The crew have instructions to engage with the local community through outreach projects.

The local governor and Cambodian navy officers were guests on board the Gary as it arrived at the port.

The ship's crew manned the rails in their crisp, white dress uniforms.

Unhappy memories

The commanding officer, Joe Deleon, described it as the highlight of his time with the ship.

Over the next five days Sihanoukville and the surrounding area will see plenty of the US sailors.

They will be helping with construction work, and hope to attract thousands of people to medical and dental clinics.

Some basic training for the Cambodian navy is also on the agenda.

Cambodian waters hold unhappy memories for US forces.

Their last major operation here was a mission to rescue the crew of a merchant ship captured by the Khmer Rouge.

It was successful but at a price - 41 US troops died and it marked the start of a long period of US antipathy towards Cambodia.

Thawing relations

During the 1980s, the US refused to recognise the new Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh.

Members of that regime have continued to dominate Cambodian politics, which explains why US ambivalence continued beyond the return of democracy.

But, recently, relations have thawed remarkably and it is not the first time that the USS Gary has played a played a diplomatic role.

It is one of several US warships to have made port calls in neighbouring Vietnam over the past four years.

US officials are also keen to increase the frequency of visits to both South East Asian countries.

The Vietnamese response has been cautious - but with limited forces of its own, Cambodia may be a more enthusiastic partner.

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