VANG TAU, Vietnam – Under pressure from top Australian officials, Vietnam on Thursday lifted its sudden ban on veterans who had traveled to the country to mark the 50th anniversary of Australia's most costly battle of the Vietnam War, with the government allowing low-key commemorations.
More than 1,000 Australian veterans and their families traveled to Vietnam to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan 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.
The reversal over the ceremony, which drew some Australian veterans back to the Communist country for the first time since the war, comes after Vietnam told Australia late Tuesday that the event was canceled.
That decision prompted urgent talks between foreign ministers of both countries, with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaking to his Vietnamese counterpart by phone.
On Thursday, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement that small groups of people would be allowed into the site, but visitors were banned from wearing medals or uniforms and from carrying banners or flags.
Groups of up to 50 people were taking turns entering the site, and were allowed to stay for no longer than 15 minutes. The Australian Ambassador to Vietnam, Craig Chittick, and two other embassy officials were scheduled to lay a wreath at the cross.
"Our hope is now that our veterans and their families will be able to travel to the site and pay their respects to the fallen and to all those who served in a very dignified way," Veterans' Affairs Minister Dan Tehan told Australia's Nine Network.
Australian Ernie Gimm, who served at Long Tan as an air controller in 1966 and 1967, planned to visit the cross on Thursday, saying he felt it was still worthwhile for him to pay his respects despite the strict conditions.
"We are not here to celebrate, but to remember those who died at war, from both sides," said Gimm, of Queensland state.
On Wednesday, Tehan said Vietnam's abrupt cancellation of the ceremony was "a kick in the guts." He told reporters the veto reflected "deep sensitivities" within Vietnam and was not a response to problems in the bilateral relationship.
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.
On Thursday, hundreds of veterans and their families gathered in the Australian capital to mark the anniversary at the Australian War Memorial.
Australia deployed more than 60,000 military personnel to Vietnam between 1962 and 1973, of whom 521 were killed.
Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.