Vietnam has informed a U.S. military team of plans to turn over the remains of 26 more missing American servicemen, the largest such return since the end of the war 10 years ago, and to provide information on six others, State Department officials said today.
The officials, traveling with Secretary of State George P. Shultz on a tour of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said this development and Vietnam's recent "commitment" to provide a full accounting for all missing Americans within two years suggest "good intentions" to move more rapidly to a resolution of the issue, which they described as an obstacle to normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese relations.
The moves by Hanoi come before the opening Monday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, of the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), at which the protracted conflict in Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia will be a major topic. On Tuesday, Shultz is to visit the Thai-Cambodian border, where there have been frequent clashes between Thai troops and intruding Vietnamese as well as between Cambodian guerrillas and the Vietnamese.
The remains of the 26 Americans, whose names were provided to the U.S. team last week, are expected to be turned over within six to eight weeks, officials said. Relatives will be notified and the names released only after the remains are positively identified at a U.S. laboratory in Hawaii.
Some of the names provided by Hanoi are of Americans who are known to have been prisoners of war at some point in the long conflict but who did not return, the officials said.
A senior State Department official accompanying Shultz said it could be possible for Vietnam to provide an acceptable accounting within two years but "it would take a lot of work." He said meetings will soon be convened in Washington to compile a U.S. work program of crash-site exploration and other activities to present to Vietnam in connection with its commitment to resolve the issue within two years.
A total of 2,464 Americans are still officially listed as unaccounted for in Indochina, including 1,375 in Vietnam, but the officials conceded that "the fullest possible accounting" -- the official U.S. objective -- would fall far short of this. A large number of servicemen disappeared in circumstances suggesting that their remains will never be found, the officials said.
Since the end of the war, remains of 116 Americans have been returned -- 99 from Vietnam and 17 from Laos.
Assistant Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz, a senior official who is traveling with Shultz, told reporters in Washington last week that it might be possible to station a U.S. technical team on POW-MIA issues in Hanoi continuously for the foreseeable future if Vietnamese cooperation on the matter improves "significantly."
The senior official who spoke to reporters here today did not rule out such a mission, saying that the need would depend on what the Vietnamese are prepared to do. Officials noted that at times, Vietnam has made promises of intensified cooperation that were not fulfilled.
The official said the United States is prepared to undertake "high-level talks" to explore Vietnam's commitment after compiling a work program in Washington. He said five previous rounds of high-level talks with Hanoi have been held on the issue since October 1982.
In addition to the missing in action whose remains have not been accounted for, Washington has refused to foreclose the possibility that some Americans are still alive and imprisoned in Indochina. While there is no proof Americans are being held, officials said, it would be irresponsible to rule this out given various reports of "live sightings" over the years of persons believed to be Americans.
Resolution of the POW-MIA issue would not bring about normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese relations so long as the Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia persists, reporters were told. Nonetheless, an official added, "getting this issue behind us would remove an obstacle to normalization."
The hoped-for improvement in U.S.-Vietnamese relations on the POW-MIA issue comes as Washington is considering stepping up its aid to anti-Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. But officials who briefed reporters here said this is not inconsistent because the POW-MIA issue is "humanitarian" and not linked to other issues.