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US ends ban on visits by New Zealand warships

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The US says it has lifted a ban on visits by New Zealand warships to US defence and coast guard bases around the world, further thawing relations after a 26-year stand-off on nuclear issues.

Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, made the announcement in Auckland during a visit to the country on Friday.

The visit - a first by a Pentagon chief in 30 years - signals a new era of US-New Zealand defence links breached in the mid-1980s, when Wellington declared itself nuclear-free and barred its ports to nuclear warships.

For the first time since the suspension of the ANZUS Treaty in 1986, the US will allow individual visits by Royal New Zealand Navy ships to US defence department or coast-guard facilities in the US and around the world, Panetta said.

"These changes make it easier for our militaries to engage in discussions on security issues and to hold co-operative engagements that increase our capacity to tackle common challenges," he said.

Panetta said the US would lift restrictions on military exercises and facilitate more talks with New Zealand even though the country maintained its long-held nuclear-free stance.

He said the US and New Zealand would work together despite lingering "differences of opinion in some limited areas".

'Very, very good' ties

While both countries acknowledged the improvement in relations and defence ties, Jonathan Coleman, New Zealand's defence minister, said his country had an independent foreign policy and that its anti-nuclear ban was not negotiable.

"I don't think that we should get too hung up about trying to turn the clock back to pre-1986 because the reality is that the relationship is very, very good," Coleman said following their meeting.

New Zealand has a small contingent of troops fighting with US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

During his visit Panetta was scheduled to meet other senior leaders to explore deeper US military engagement with New Zealand as the US rebalances its forces to the Asia-Pacific as part of a new military strategy.

In July, the US and New Zealand agreed to hold regular high-level talks and to co-operate on maritime security, counter-terrorism, and peacekeeping operations.

Members of the US Marine Corps trained in New Zealand earlier this year, and New Zealand's navy took part in the multi-nation Rimpac maritime exercise ships in July.


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