Vietnam to open restricted sites for MIA search: Pentagon

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (2nd L) participates in an arrival ceremony with Vietnam's Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh (L) at the Ministry of Defense in Hanoi on June 4, 2012.

HANOI - The Vietnamese government has agreed to open three previously restricted sites to help the search for and excavation of the remains of US servicemen listed as missing in action, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday.

The agreement was unveiled at a meeting between visiting US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh, spokesman George Little said.

He gave no details about the sites.

"The Department of Defense believes these sites are critical to locating missing-in-action troops from the Vietnam War and that JPAC research teams will strongly benefit from access to these sites," Little said, referring to the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command mission in Vietnam.

At the meeting, Panetta and Thanh also exchanged artefacts taken by Vietnamese and US soldiers during the war, which ended in 1975, Little said.

The exchange, involving the diary of a Vietnamese soldier killed in 1966 and the personal letters of a US army sergeant killed in 1969, is the first of its kind between the two defence ministries.

On Sunday, Panetta became the most senior US official to visit Cam Ranh Bay in central Vietnam, a former US logistic hub during the Vietnam War, since the end of the war.

The United States wanted to expand defence ties with Vietnam following a memorandum signed last year on defence co-operation, the Vietnam Defence Ministry-run People's Army paper quoted Panetta as saying at a briefing there on Sunday.

Panetta's Vietnam visit is part of a week-long trip to Asia to explain Washington's new military strategy, which involves what has been described as a pivot to Asia.

On Saturday, he attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an annual security conference that draws senior civilian and military leaders from some 30 Pacific nations.

Panetta was scheduled to visit the JPAC office in Vietnam and meet with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung later on Monday, Vietnam's Foreign Ministry said.

US-Vietnamese teams started joint field work in September 1988 and have since investigated more than 3,500 cases and excavated more than 500 sites in their search for the remains of US servicemen, the US embassy in Hanoi said.

A total of 968 Americans missing from the Vietnam War have been identified since 1973, including 684 in Vietnam. There are still 1,678 Americans unaccounted for from the war, including 1,287 in Vietnam, the US embassy said.

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