WASHINGTON -- President Bush and President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia promised to redouble efforts to determine the fate of U.S. prisoners missing in the Vietnam War, in the wake of comments by Mr. Yeltsin that some could still be alive in the former Soviet Union.
"President Yeltsin informed me for the first time that Russia may have information about the fate of some of our servicemen from Vietnam," Mr. Bush said yesterday, joining the visiting Russian leader at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden.
Mr. Bush said the Russian government had provided "no evidence" that any prisoners from the Vietnam war were alive. But he added that he had dispatched a former ambassador, Malcolm Toon, to Moscow to track down the "latest leads."
Mr. Yeltsin said investigators from a joint U.S.-Russian commission on prisoners of war had some success tracing about 2,800 Americans who had been detained by the former Soviet Union at various times since World War I.
After compiling evidence on those who had died, had departed or had been returned to the United States, Mr. Yeltsin said, the commission was left with some prisoners whose fate cannot immediately be determined. "It is possible" that some Vietnam War-era prisoners are still alive, he said.
In an interview with an NBC reporter Monday night, Mr. Yeltsin said government archives showed that some U.S. POWs in Vietnam had been transported to Soviet labor camps.
The Russian investigation is led by General Dmitri Volkogonov, a prominent military historian who has had access to Communist Party and KGB archives, Mr. Yeltsin said.
"The work is continuing both in the archives and in the places where the POWs were," Mr. Yeltsin said. "We will try to investigate each individual case, and all the information will be . . . handed over to the American side."
Mr. Yeltsin acknowledged that a U.S. suggestion that American POWs might be living in the former Soviet Union "was something that we always denied in the past."
At the Pentagon, meanwhile, the Defense Department said it is investigating an unconfirmed report that a U.S. serviceman, "probably from the Korean War," is still alive in the former Soviet Union.
A Pentagon spokesman, Pete Williams, said the U.S. report is probably based on the same information that Mr. Volkogonov cited here Monday when he said that Russian authorities had received a letter from somewhere in the Ural Mountains, informing them "there was an American there."
"That's all I can say on it at the moment," Williams said. "In the past, we have heard reports of others and have followed them up, but there's been no evidence found to support any of those reports."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., represent Congress on the joint U.S.-Russian POW commission. They and other members of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA zTC Affairs met yesterday and congratulated Mr. Yeltsin for his statement, but said it raised issues about both Soviet and U.S. government candor in the past.