Cambodian entrepreneurs are stockpiling what they claim are the bones of missing U.S. soldiers from the Vietnam War. These salesmen and their gruesome trade were spawned by rumors that Americans and their government will buy what they haven't been able to get through negotiations with the Cambodian government.

Several visitors to Thailand have reported to us recently that they have been approached by political refugees from Cambodia with bones to sell. Amus Townsend, a retired Air Force physician, went to Bangkok on a mission to help refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border. When he visited refugees in a village in southern Thailand, they offered to sell him a skull which they said was from an American GI. Townsend declined.

On June 12, nine Vietnamese refugees landed on Tanjung Sedili Beach, 150 miles southeast of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with seven barrels stuffed with bones. Some of the skeletons wore GI dog tags, but none of the names matched those of MIAs or POWs. The refugees were under the mistaken impression that they could buy U.S. citizenship with the bones.

The frenzy over bones appears to be the result of a $2.4 million reward offered by POW advocacy groups in the United States. The money is for the return of a live POW, not for remains. But the story has been scrambled in Southeast Asia.

The $2.4 million was pledged by 21 members of Congress and other private parties. In 1988, a group of veterans announced the reward by scattering fliers in plastic envelopes along the Mekong River in Thailand. No one has collected, but the reward offer still stands, according to Eugene "Red" McDaniel, a former POW and sponsor of the reward.

The Pentagon wasn't pleased with the reward. It is vigorously opposed to paying for the return of anyone, dead or alive.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok is frequently offered bogus identification tags and other supposed remains by con artists. Sources told us that even chicken bones and pig remains are sold on the black market. But the buyers are usually Cambodians or Thais who think they can find a U.S. buyer. There is no evidence yet that Americans have paid for remains.

For years, peasants have combed the rural areas of Southeast Asia scavenging scrap metal from airplanes that crashed during the war. Now the scavenging of bones is taking precedence.

Of the more than 2,000 Americans missing in the war, 83 were lost in Cambodia. Past offers by the Cambodian government to negotiate for the return of remains have been refused by the U.S. government, which has not wanted to imply any recognition of Phnom Penh. But recently there has been some cooperation between the two countries. In June, the Hun Sen government announced the creation of a high-ranking commission to seek the remains of servicemen.

Last month, a military forensic team went to Cambodia to examine remains said to be those of Americans.

U.S. officials say there is no evidence that Americans are still being held alive in Southeast Asia. The reality is, all that the United States has been able to retrieve of the missing is bones.