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Rift recedes in memory of D-Day debt

Arromanches (France), June 6 (Reuters): World leaders today paid tribute to the thousands of Allied troops who fought and died in the D-Day landings in Normandy 60 years ago, and vowed to safeguard the transatlantic alliance they forged.

Putting aside differences over the Iraq war, President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac said modern leaders had a duty to honour the values the soldiers died for by defending the cause of freedom and democracy together.

“France will never forget what it owes America, its steadfast friend and ally,” Chirac told a ceremony attended by about 20 heads of state and government at Arromanches, a coastal village which was the scene of heavy fighting on June 6, 1944.

“Like all the countries of Europe, France is keenly aware that the Atlantic alliance remains, in the face of new threats, a fundamental element of our collective security.”

Bush, standing beside Chirac at an earlier ceremony, said the US and its European allies were bound together by the sacrifices that were made 60 years ago to help liberate Europe from the Nazis’ stranglehold during World War II.

“Our great alliance is strong and it is still needed today,” Bush told a crowd of war veterans at the US cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, a village near the beach codenamed Omaha where US troops came ashore and suffered heavy losses.

A 21-gun salute and a military flyover honoured those buried at the cemetery as Bush and Chirac stood to attention.

Many of the D-Day survivors, some in wheelchairs and many now in their 80s, embodied the spirit of reconciliation.

“The German soldiers had a job to do, just as we had a job to do,” said 81-year-old British veteran John Rockley. “I feel no animosity towards them, and after all it was 60 years ago.”

Bush and Chirac made their own pledges of reconciliation at talks in Paris yesterday intended to mend ties strained by differences over the Iraq war, which France opposed.

Neither made any direct reference to Iraq today, avoiding saying anything that might stoke a new diplomatic row.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin were among other leaders who attended the ceremonies amid one of the biggest security operations staged in France.

Some 30,000 troops were deployed in the area around the Normandy beaches and helicopters patrolled overhead. Fighter planes were ready to shoot down any aircraft violating the no-fly zone around the event if ordered to do so by Paris.

Queen Elizabeth hailed the allies’ advance in France as “one of the most dramatic military operations in history”.

Some 23,400 British and American paratroopers were dropped inland on D-Day and more than 132,000 troops were then landed on Normandy beaches codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.

Allied casualties on D-Day are estimated at 10,000, of whom 2,500 were killed. German casualties are not known but are estimated at between 4,000 and 9,000.

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