CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia was making top-level appeals to Vietnam on Wednesday to lift a sudden ban on veterans commemorating the 50th anniversary of Australia's most costly battle of the Vietnam War.
More than 1,000 Australian veterans and their families have traveled to Vietnam to observe the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan on Thursday at a cross marking the site where 18 Australian soldiers and hundreds of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops died in a rubber plantation on Aug. 18, 1966.
But after 18 months of negotiations between Vietnamese and Australian officials over the commemoration, which has drawn some Australian veterans back to the Communist country for the first time since the war, Vietnam told Australia late Tuesday the event was canceled, Veterans' Affairs Minister Dan Tehan said Wednesday.
Tehan said Australian and Vietnamese foreign ministers would discuss the decision and Australia's prime minister had requested a telephone conversation with his Vietnamese counterpart to ask that the ceremony be allowed.
"Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the over 1,000 veterans who have traveled to Vietnam to mark this commemoration with respect and with dignity," Tehan told reporters.
"For us, to be given such short notice of the cancellation is — to put it in very frank terms — a kick in the guts," he added.
The Long Tan anniversary is Australia's official Vietnam Veterans Day and has been commemorated by Australians at the battle scene since 1989.
In the fighting, a company of 105 Australian soldiers plus three New Zealanders supported by artillery survived a rain-drenched, three-hour battle by driving off wave after wave of attacks by more than 2,000 enemy troops.
Ken Foster, president of the Vietnam Veterans' Association of Australia, said former soldiers would be "shattered" by the cancellation.
"I do have concerns for the mental welfare of not only those Vietnam veterans in Vietnam, but also those here in Australia," Foster said.
Tehan said the veto reflected "deep sensitivities" within Vietnamese and was not a response to problems in the bilateral relationship.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that despite the ban, an official party including the Australian and New Zealand ambassadors will lay a wreath Thursday and small groups will have access to the site on the day.
Australian deployed more than 60,000 military personnel to Vietnam between 1962 and 1973, of whom 521 were killed.