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Vietnam opens restricted sites to aid search for missing US soldiers

The Vietnamese government has agreed to allow American investigators access to sites that may contain the remains of US soldiers missing in action.

Vietnam us leon panetta 04 06 2012Enlarge
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his Vietnamese counterpart Phuong Quang Thanh exchanged papers belonging to Vietnamese and American servicemen killed in the Vietnam War, at their meeting in Hanoi on June 4, 2012. (Jim Watson/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

The Vietnamese government has agreed to give US military investigators access to three sites that were previously off limits, where they hope to recover the remains of American soldiers missing since the Vietnam War.

Vietnamese Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh announced the decision during a visit by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Reuters reported.

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The move could help the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) to locate four missing servicemen, according to the American Forces Press Service: two who went down in an Air Force jet in Quang Binh province in 1967, an Army private first class lost in Kontum province in 1968, and a Marine aboard an aircraft that crashed in Quang Tri province.

AFPS quoted Panetta as saying that the recovery efforts were important to troops serving today, "because they know the military means that it will leave no man behind."

According to JPAC figures cited by Reuters, the remains of 687 missing US military personnel have been identified in Vietnam since 1973. There are still 1,284 unaccounted for, of which around 600 bodies are thought to be recoverable.

Eight sites in Vietnam remain restricted to JPAC investigators, according to the Associated Press.

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The two defense chiefs also carried out what Voice of America called "a poignant exchange of war memorabilia," swapping the diary of a Vietnamese soldier killed in action for letters home from an American officer during his service in Vietnam.

"It has been trying days for me and my men," wrote Sgt. Steve Flaherty of Columbia, S.C., in an excerpt given by the AP. "We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget."

The papers, which were taken from the soldiers' bodies by their respective enemies after they were killed, will now be returned to their families, the AP said.