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Hanoi opens 3 new sites in search of MIAs

HANOI -- The Vietnamese government on Monday agreed to open three new sites in the country for excavation by the United States to search for troop remains from the war, the minister of defense told U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during a meeting here.

The announcement came as Panetta and Vietnam Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh exchanged long-held artifacts collected during the war — including letters written by a U.S. soldier who was killed that had been kept and used as propaganda, and a small maroon diary belonging to a Vietnamese soldier. A U.S. service member took the journal back to the U.S.

During a press briefing, where the two defense chiefs formally handed over the papers, both said their countries want to work together, whether or not the expanded relationship bothers China. Beijing has expressed concern over America's new defense strategy that puts more focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

Thanh said Vietnam wants to continue defense cooperation with all countries, including stable and longstanding relationships with China and the United States. Hanoi, he said, would not sacrifice relations with one country for another.

Panetta said the U.S. goal is to help strengthen the capabilities of countries across the region.

“Frankly the most destabilizing situation would be if we had a group of weak nations and only the United States and China were major powers in this region,” said Panetta.

Defense officials reviewing the packet of papers given to Panetta said it appears there are three sets of letters, including a set from the soldier, U.S. Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty, who was from Columbia, South Carolina. It was not clear how many other service members' letters were there, but officials were going through them Monday.

Officials said this is the first time such a joint exchange of war artifacts has occurred. The two defense leaders agreed to return the papers to the families of the deceased soldiers.

During the meeting with Panetta, Vietnamese officials said they would open the three previously restricted sites that the Pentagon believes are critical to locating troops missing.

Ron Ward, U.S. casualty resolution specialist at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hanoi, said there are at least four U.S. troops believed to be lost in the three areas that were opened by the Vietnamese Monday. With those three areas now open, Ward said there are now just eight sites left that are still restricted.

One place where restrictions were lifted on Monday was the suspected 1967 crash site of an F-4C Phantom in Quang Binh province in central Vietnam just north of the former demilitarized zone, he said. The second site where restrictions were lifted was the scene of a 1968 firefight in Kon Tum province near the borders with Laos and Cambodia, and the final site was the scene of a crash of a Marine Corps F-4J in Quang Tri province.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, gives a Vietnam War memorabilia of a Vietnamese soldier, which was kept by the U.S., to his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh during a joint press conference at Ministry of Defense in Hanoi, Monday, June 4. (AP)

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