As Washington and Hanoi continue to edge toward better relations, the United States has launched the largest search mission for Americans missing in action since the end of the Vietnam War.
The operation comes at a time when the US is assessing the entire issue of MIAs and when and how to move ahead in lifting its 19-year trade embargo against its former enemy.
Some veterans organizations and MIA family members oppose renewed ties with Vietnam, claiming Hanoi continues to withhold information as well as remains.
Army Maj. Gen. Thomas Needham, the commander of the American search operation, conceded that the Vietnamese could do more. ``The Vietnamese could keep looking for documents,'' he said. ``I encourage them at every point to try to find more documents.''
Still, he says he doesn't believe the government is holding back remains. ``But there are individuals that have come across remains, that know where remains are, but are hoping and hoping that at some point the United States will buy them,'' he said. The US policy is not to pay for remains.
Army Lt. Col. David Fredrikson, a spokesman for the operation, said it would be the largest search mission since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. When Vietnam first allowed the United States to search for remains in 1988, there were only three men to conduct investigations.
The 23-day operation that began yesterday will involve eight teams of 84 Americans, including four excavation teams, plus their Vietnamese counterparts.
Since the end of the war, Vietnam has turned over 280 sets of remains that have been positively identified as Americans.
Mr. Fredrikson said that last year was the best ever for cooperation with the Vietnamese, who turned over the remains of what are believed to be 67 Americans.
The US lists 1,648 Americans still unaccounted for in Vietnam, 505 in Laos, 78 in Cambodia, and eight in China.
US officials have said it is unlikely that there will ever be a full accounting, citing the amount of time that has passed and the fact that many of the men went down over water or in mountainous terrain.