HANOI (Reuters) - The Vietnamese government gave on Monday a boost to the search for missing U.S. servicemen from the Vietnam War, telling visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta it would open three previously closed sites to permit excavation for remains.
Vietnamese Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh told Panetta of the decision during a meeting at his ministry, where they discussed the U.S. strategic shift toward the Asia-Pacific region, and its implications for their growing military ties.
The United States is looking to expand military relations with Vietnam after they signed a memorandum of understanding last year on defence cooperation.
"Both sides should spend more effort in trust building," Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was quoted in a Vietnamese government statement as telling Panetta during a meeting.
Dung urged the United States to fully remove a ban on sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam. It should also play a greater role in dealing with the consequences of the war, he said.
On Sunday, Panetta became the most senior U.S. official since the end of the Vietnam War to visit Cam Ranh Bay in central Vietnam, a U.S. logistics hub during the conflict. He visited a U.S. Navy cargo ship that was undergoing repairs at the Vietnamese port.
The Vietnamese decision to lift restrictions on three sites will help the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command's (JPAC) search for four missing servicemen.
Ron Ward, a casualty resolution specialist at JPAC, said Vietnam occasionally restricted access to suspected casualty sites. 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.
"We located the site in 2008 but soon thereafter the Vietnamese informed us that site was restricted for some reason," he said. "So we're pleased to find out that today ... the restriction on that site has been lifted."
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.
Panetta's visit is part of a week-long trip to the Asia-Pacific to explain Washington's new military strategy, which will see 60 percent of U.S. warships deployed in the region by 2020, compared with 50 percent now.
On Saturday, he attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an annual security conference that draws senior civilian and military leaders from some 30 Asia-Pacific nations.
Panetta has insisted the new U.S. strategy is not directed at containing China's rise as a global power, despite concern among some Chinese officials that the United States is trying to fence it in by building up ties with countries that have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
In a meeting on Monday that was heavy with Vietnam War symbolism, the U.S. and Vietnamese defence leaders exchanged letters and a diary taken from slain servicemen and now being returned more than 40 years later as soldiers and families touched by the conflict seek to make peace with the past.
The letters handed over by the Vietnamese side were taken from U.S. Army Sergeant Steve Flaherty, a member of the 101st Airborne Division who was killed in action in March 1969. Excerpts of the letters were used in propaganda broadcasts during the war, the Pentagon said.
"It has been trying days for me and my men," Flaherty said in a letter to a girl named Betty. "We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget."
"This is a dirty and cruel war," he said in a note to another friend, "but I'm sure people will understand the purpose of this war even though many of us might not agree."
Vietnamese Senior Colonel Nguyen Phu Dat kept the letters after the conflict while considering how to return them. He mentioned the papers in an online article last year that came to the attention of the Pentagon, which asked for them.
The document handed over by the United States was a small red diary taken from the body of Vu Dinh Doan, who was killed in a firefight with a Marine Corps platoon in March 1966.
Marine Robert Frazure found the diary, with a family photo and some money, and kept it when he returned to the United States. He began looking for a way to return the diary in recent years, and it was brought to the attention the Pentagon, which helped facilitate the transaction.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the document exchange reflected the progress in the relationship since ties were normalized 17 years ago.
"It is a reflection of the priority the United States places on people-to-people ties with Vietnam," he said.
U.S.-Vietnamese teams started joint field work in September 1988 looking for U.S. servicemen missing in action. They have since investigated more than 3,500 cases and excavated more than 500 sites in their search for remains, officials said.
A total of 980 Americans missing from the Vietnam War have been identified since 1973, including 687 in Vietnam, according to JPAC figures. There are still 1,666 Americans unaccounted for from the war, including 1,284 in Vietnam, JPAC said.
(Additional reporting by Ho Binh Minh; Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Robert Birsel)
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