WASHINGTON -- Nobody seemed to know what Boris N. Yeltsin was talking about when he said that American POWs from Vietnam were sent to the Soviet Union and that some may still be alive there.
Both countries launched an intensified search of Soviet records yesterday after the Russian president made the allegation in an interview Monday.
Amid the instant confusion, neither Mr. Yeltsin nor his spokesman was able to provide further details. U.S. officials pointed out that they had received a POW report only last week that did not mention any from Vietnam. In Moscow, researchers told the Christian Science Monitor that the only U.S. soldiers who came to the Soviet Union were deserters, not POWs.
But President Bush, clearly aware that the POW issue can be political dynamite in an election year, moved swiftly to try to control it immediately after announcing a sweeping U.S.-Russian arms deal.
"President Yeltsin informed me, for the first time, that Russia may have information about the fate of some of our servicemen from Vietnam. And he said the Russian government is pursuing this information vigorously," he said, adding that there was no evidence any servicemen were still alive.
The two presidents instructed the U.S. and Russian heads of a bilateral commission looking broadly into the POW issue to begin joint pursuit of the latest information. Mr. Bush told the American, former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Malcolm Toon, to return to Moscow immediately.
Asked if there was a danger of raising false hopes, he replied, "You got to be careful of that, yeah."
On Capitol Hill, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a former POW in Vietnam, urged that a major Russian aid package, which may be taken up by the Senate today, be held up until there is an accounting of possible U.S. POWs.
Mr. Yeltsin was quoted Monday by NBC as saying that Americans had been transferred to the former Soviet Union during the Vietnam conflict and that he could "only surmise that some of them may still be alive."
Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslaev Kostikov, said last night that graves of Americans had been found, but he did not say whether these were graves of Vietnam veterans.
Nor did he say on what information Mr. Yeltsin based his statement. In response to a question, Mr. Kostikov said that Mr. Yeltsin may have had the information at the time he wrote to members of Congress last week disclosing that 12 U.S. pilots, shot down during the 1950s, had been held in prison camps and psychiatric clinics and that hundreds of U.S. servicemen had been imprisoned after World War II.
U.S. officials yesterday said they were aware of no new information's coming to light since the commission's most recent report, which coincided with Mr. Yeltsin's letter.
"If he was saying that a Vietnam veteran is alive in the former Soviet Union, obviously that is news and it raises very, very serious questions," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, which held a closed meeting on the issue Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the committee, Deborah DeYoung, said that senators would try to question Mr. Yeltsin when he visits Capitol Hill today about his sources of information.
The Russians' inability to clarify the matter yesterday heightened the possibility that Mr. Yeltsin may have misunderstood the NBC question or that he may have misspoken.
The Yeltsin statement reinforced rumors and suspicions about the fate of U.S. servicemen that have dogged successive administrations and which have been renewed this year with the presumed presidential candidacy of Ross Perot, a longtime critic of alleged insufficient government action to get to the bottom of the matter.
The Pentagon lists 2,266 Americans as unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. Of these, 135 are listed as "discrepancy" cases -- those for which there is strong evidence that they survived the incident in which they were lost, such as an aircraft shoot-down, were captured, or "about whom [the governments of Indochina] should have information."
In a related matter, Senator Kerry criticized Mr. Perot yesterday for refusing to testify before the Senate panel until after the presidential election, despite having previously pledged to appear June 30. In a letter released yesterday, Mr. Perot said his testimony would create a "political circus."