US Marines to visit New Zealand next year

NICK PERRY - Associated Press
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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, left, greets John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand, at an honor cordon to at the Pentagon Thursday, July 21, 2011 in Washington.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — U.S. Marines will visit New Zealand next year for the first time in at least 25 years, a sign of continuing thawing in the countries' military relations.

Prime Minister John Key made the announcement after visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Washington on Thursday.

The Marines' visit will mark the 70th anniversary of their arrival in New Zealand to offer military support during World War II in case of an attack in the South Pacific. Key has also invited the U.S. Coast Guard to send a ship.

Military relations between the countries soured 25 years ago when New Zealand banned nuclear weapons from the country, preventing U.S. warships from visiting. Relations have improved in recent years, and New Zealand special forces have been active in Afghanistan.

The nuclear weapons ban is popular among the general public in New Zealand but remains a sticking point for the U.S. in resuming a full military relationship.

Among the details yet to be worked out for next year's visit are the number of Marines, how many will be veterans and how many active service, and whether they will arrive by plane or ship.

Stephen Hoadley, an associate professor of political studies and a foreign policy specialist at the University of Auckland, said the visit will "resonate very favorably" with older New Zealanders, some of whom remember the Marines' arrival in 1942.

"It was a tremendous emotional event," said Hoadley, noting that New Zealanders felt an enormous sense of relief at the U.S. presence.

Even then there were tensions, however, and in 1943 a riot involving more than 1,000 troops broke out in Wellington between American and New Zealand servicemen.