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Saturday, 11 November, 2000, 00:46 GMT
Searching for MIAs in Vietnam
Excavation site
Workman look for the remains of a pilot
By Hanoi correspondent Owen Bennett-Jones

When US President Bill Clinton visits Vietnam this week he will make a trip to an excavation site where the search is continuing for US servicemen killed during the war.

An investigator examines scraps from a fighter jet
An investigator examines scraps from a fighter jet
Globally, Washington spends $100m a year looking for its servicemen lost in combat. The bulk of that money is spent in Vietnam.

"It's a tradition in the American military that we never leave our dead on the battle field. It's a sacred honour and we're proud to be part of it," says Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Childress.

In 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, 2,583 American military personnel were unaccounted for in South East Asia.

Since then 591 sets of remains have been identified.

President Bill Clinton
Clinton is the first US president to visit Vietnam since the war
Near the town of Viet Tri, around 100km from Hanoi, a 12-strong team of Americans is currently excavating a huge crater in a rice paddy.

Back in 1965 an American jet fighter was shot down and crashed on the site.

Before the Americans arrived local farmers had been using the crater as a fish pond.

Most of the plane is missing. It was removed by Vietnamese scrap metal dealers in the late 1980s.

Bones

It is the third time the US military have returned to the site. They hope to find identifiable remains of the pilot. So far they have found parts of the plane and small bone fragments.

Fishing pond
This crater was created by a jet crash 35 years ago
"The largest bone fragment we have found is just one centimetre by two centimetres," said Anne Bunch, the US anthropologist at the site. That is probably too small to run a conclusive DNA test.

Local workers are paid by the Americans to do much of the digging. Vietnamese officials refused to let them speak to western reporters.

But the American team members say that the Vietnamese tradition of ancestor worship means there is considerable sympathy for what the Americans are doing.

"They think this is a great thing that a government would be willing to come back and search for their people after all these years," said Tuan Tranh, a Vietnamese American, working as a translator on the site.

Ceremony

US officials say that they do receive a high level of co-operation from the Vietnamese authorities.

At any one time the US has 10 to 15 investigators conducting interviews in Vietnam.

Ceremony in 1999 to repatriate remains of US servicemen
Mr Clinton will attend a repatriation ceremony
They often travel to remote rural areas in the hope of finding eye witnesses who can tell them where any remains of Americans might be.

Some cases, for example if a pilot crashed into deep water, will never be solved. Currently, 646 of those unaccounted for are listed as "no further pursuit" cases.

President Clinton will not only visit an excavation site but also officiate at a ceremony to repatriate the remains of some Americans which have been found.

Secretive Vietnamese officials are reluctant to discuss how many of their compatriots are still missing as a result of the conflict. In the past the number has been estimated at 300,000.

Co-operation

Even when a set of remains has been put through the military's gruelling verification process, a few American families insist their loved ones are still alive.

"I think it's basic human nature ... they just don't want to accept it," said Colonel Childress.

"We don't have any credible evidence to say there are still unaccounted for American service members alive in South-East Asia. But we can't prove there are none alive," he added.

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See also:

28 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
America reflects on Vietnam
13 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Cohen seeks details of war dead
25 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Vietnam: A new Asian Tiger?
Links to more Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.


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