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HMNZS Canterbury, first of the navy's Protector fleet vessels, made its inaugural New Zealand port of call today, arriving at noon in Lyttelton, gateway to the province after which it is named.

The 131-metre, 9000-tonne multi-role ship, built in Holland and commissioned in Melbourne this month, will be based at the Devonport naval base in Auckland.

Canterbury is the first of seven new naval ships ordered by the Government under its $500 million Project Protector programme. Six other ships -- two 85-metre offshore patrol vessels and four 55-metre inshore patrol craft -- are expected in New Zealand in the next 12 months.

Defence Minister Phil Goff welcomed the ship to Lyttelton today, saying it was a "symbol of the future" -- for both a versatile navy with a broad range of capabilities and the Government's approach to New Zealand's security "as a multi-agency process".

Canterbury represented an "impressive new capability" for the navy, Mr Goff said.

"When her 53 core crew are joined by 250 soldiers, 10 air force flight crew, light armoured vehicles, containers, up to four of the new NH90 helicopters and a Seasprite helicopter, Canterbury will embody the New Zealand Defence Force's joint approach to operations," he said.

Its main "tactical sealift" role would allow New Zealand much greater flexibility in responding to military deployments and to requests for civil and disaster relief in New Zealand and the wider region.

"She will conduct military support operations, including humanitarian, peace and non-combatant evacuations operations," Mr Goff said.

"She will make important contributions to search and rescue operations, medical support, and maritime pollution control assistance. Canterbury's ice-strengthened hull will also enable her to patrol the Southern Ocean."

The last ship with regional affiliations to Canterbury was the steam turbine-driven Leander class frigate HMNZS Canterbury. That ship is now at the Northland port of Opua being readied to be sunk as a dive attraction.

In keeping with its provincial affiliations, the new Canterbury's hangar has been named "Cathedral Square", with four internal hallways named after the four avenues that bound Christchurch's central business district -- Fitzgerald, Moorhouse, Bealey and Rolleston.

About 65 local dignitaries, including armed forces officials, Ngai Tahu representatives, members of Parliament and mayors from throughout Canterbury greeted the vessel on her arrival at Lyttelton's No.2 wharf at midday.

Christchurch Mayor Garry Moore said the multi-role vessel continued a long tradition of naval ships associated with Canterbury.

"It's a proud name with a proud heritage," he said.

Mr Moore urged Cantabrians to embrace the vessel and "make it as much a part of the province as the Crusaders" Super 14 rugby team.

"God bless the Canterbury and all who sail in her," he said.

After the formal welcoming ceremony today, children from the ship's charity, the Cholmondeley Children's Home, were entertained on board.

Members of the Canterbury provincial rugby squad will visit the ship tomorrow.

On Saturday, the ship's company will be given the freedom of Christchurch after a rare charter parade through city streets.

The charter will be presented to the Canterbury's commanding officer, Ashburton-born Commander Tony Millar, recognising the ship's affiliation with the Canterbury region.

Canterbury will be open to the public on Sunday, before the ship sails to Timaru for a short visit on Monday and then on to Devonport for a series of trials involving the army and the air force.

- NZPA