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US to increase aid to clear unexploded bombs in Laos

VIENTIANE, Laos — Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the United States is considering increasing financial aid to help Laos clear the countryside of unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War more than four decades ago.

Speaking with reporters at the end of a one-day stop in the impoverished, Communist-run country, Kerry said no final figure has been determined, but discussions are underway to increase it.

The United States has been helping find and clear unexploded ordnance for more than half a decade, starting with $5 million a year and gradually rising to $15 million last year and $19.5 this year. The efforts have resulted in a significant decline in the number of Laotians killed and seriously wounded, which was averaging 300 a year.

"We're now down to about 50 a year," Kerry said, adding, "And 50 a year is still too many."

Kerry said he expected a final aid package to be completed by the time President Barack Obama comes to Laos this summer to attend a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Kerry said the United States will continue or establish a number of programs, including one focusing on child nutrition and another to strengthen dams along on the Mekong River, a vital tributary that runs through six countries.

Kerry arrived Sunday night in Laos, a country he first visited in the 1990s as a senator when he flew by helicopter to jungle sites trying to locate the remains of POWs or MIAs from the Vietnam War, which he famously served in on a Swift Boat patrolling the Mekong River.

His visit to this tiny nation that rarely makes international news is a rare one for American diplomats. He is only the third secretary of state to ever visit Laos, after John Foster Dulles in 1955 and Hillary Clinton in 2012.

Relations have been standoffish for decades between Washington and the Communist rulers of the Lao People's Republic, who only last week chose a new leader for the single-party government. But in recent years, the two countries have worked to establish warmer ties. Kerry laid a bouquet of closed lotus blossoms at a third-century B.C. Buddhist monument where the Communist red flag with a hammer and sickle flew from shrine roofs alongside the Laotian national flag.

Kerry came to Vientiane to lay the groundwork for a summit Obama will host in February for the 10 countries in ASEAN, a group that Laos chairs this year. Obama's attendance at an ASEAN meeting in Vientiane will mark the first time U.S. president ever has visited the landlocked country.

All the high-level visiting to Laos is part of the administration's efforts to pay more attention to Asia, an area that is expected to be the engine for future economic growth. Kerry goes on Tuesday to Cambodia, boasting one of Asia's fastest growing economies. Both Laos and Cambodia do most of their trade with China, which is aggressively courting Laos with loans and investments. Kerry is trying to help the United States make more inroads.

While in Laos, Kerry said, he spoke by phone with the foreign ministers of Russia, France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia about preparations for Geneva peace talks expected to start next week. He said he also talked with U.N. Envoy Staffan de Mistura, whose job it is to issue invitations to the United Nations-sponsored talks between government officials and opposition groups.

The negotiations are expected to roll out slowly, with the participants meeting in separate rooms with de Mistura shuttling between them, because so many issues still divide both the negotiating parties and the 20-nation "support group" that first proposed the peace talks. Among the major undecided issues are the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the composition of the opposition negotiating team.

Kerry said the first two or three days may be consumed with conversations about humanitarian access and confidence building measures, but he expressed confidence the talks would officially begin next week.

"We're going to have meetings," he said. "And they're going to start. What we're trying to do is make certain when they start, everybody is clear about their roles and what's happening, so you don't go there and wind up with a question mark."

The first round will be followed by another meeting of foreign ministers from the countries that helped birth this third attempt to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war. Kerry said it has tentatively been scheduled for Feb. 11.

The warring participants in the talks are staking out their positions, with the Syrian government saying it need not capitulate and some opposition complaining the Geneva talks are being rammed down their throats.

"If that's their attitude, the war doesn't end," Kerry said.

"I have said from day one, we are going to know very quickly in a month or two or three whether these guys are serious," he added.

Kerry's final stop on his eight-day trip is in Beijing. U.S. officials have increasingly spoken out on their desire for China, which supports Pyongyang, to apply more pressure on North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons. Pyongyang announced a nuclear test on Jan. 6, and U.S. officials said that proved Beijing hasn't used enough economic leverage on its ally.

Kerry declined to preview the message he intends to deliver in China, saying he wants the conversations to remain private.

"The only thing I'm going to say about China is, I look forward to having solid conversations, serious conversations about one of the most serious issues on the planet today, which is a clearly reckless and dangerous evolving security threat in the hands of somebody who is questionable in terms of judgment, and has proven thus to China," he said, referring to Kim Jong Un, the quixotic supreme leader of North Korea.

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