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Clinton first U.S. official in Laos in decades

VIENTIANE, Laos -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first high-ranking U.S. official to visit Laos since the Vietnam War era, when the United States dropped 260 million cluster bombs across the countryside in a nine-year campaign to crush North Vietnamese supply lines and bases.

Clinton met yesterday with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and other officials for talks mostly about the lingering effects of that war, including a sense of mutual estrangement, then toured a museum devoted to its human toll.

In the sweltering afternoon, Clinton walked through an exhibit of dangling cluster bombs and crude wooden artificial legs made by villagers whose limbs had been blown off by unexploded ordnance, the legacy of a war that Clinton herself had protested as a college student in the 1960s.

Then she met Phongsavath Souliyat, who had been blinded by and lost both hands to a cluster bomb. He told her he hoped governments would ban the weapon.

"We have to do more," Clinton responded. "That's one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together."

The stop in Vientiane was a brief but symbolically significant part of a longer trip that is taking Clinton to Mongolia, Vietnam and to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she is to attend the regional meeting of the ASEAN group of 10 Southeast Asian nations.

The trip is intended to underline the Obama administration's much-promoted strategic pivot toward Asia, and more particularly to convince ASEAN nations that U.S. interests in the region are economic as well as security-based. Clinton is unveiling a range of economic initiatives and private-sector business deals during the trip.

At the same time, the United States is trying to encourage ASEAN nations to assert themselves in a simmering territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea, viewed as a test case for how a rising China will deal with the world -- through threats and coercion or according to international legal norms.

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