MOSCOW -- The search for information on U.S. prisoners of war missing in Russia shifted yesterday to the industrial city of Tambov after documents were found there showing that as many as 2,500 Western soldiers, including Americans, were held in labor camps there after World War II.
The newly discovered documents, dating from 1945, showed that a camp commander was ordered to receive 2,500 foreign POWs, and residents confirmed their arrival and subsequent imprisonment, according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
"We can only assume those were prisoners of Hitler's camps freed by our troops and sent over here," a Tambov official, Vladimir Penkov, told the agency. "Specialists will still have to find out how many of them are lying [buried] on Tambov soil."
Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, who said in Washington last week that some U.S. soldiers captured during the Korean and Vietnam wars had been transferred to the Soviet Union and that a few might be alive, reaffirmed his commitment yesterday to report on all Americans who could be traced.
More than 23,000 prisoners of war were brought to the Soviet Union after World War II, Mr. Yeltsin said, and Russia was honor-bound to report their fates to their families.
Russian officials said earlier that thousands of U.S. servicemen with Russian, Ukrainian, German or Jewish names were interned here on suspicion of being "anti-Soviet" after their release from German POW camps.
"Now comes the matter of their destiny," Mr. Yeltsin said on his return to Moscow. "How many were freed, how many died, how many were shot, and where were they buried?
"We still do not know the fate of several prisoners. Maybe they are still alive here somewhere, maybe in mental hospitals. We must find the truth and the destiny of every single person."
Those held in Tambov, an industrial center about 250 miles southeast of Moscow, included soldiers from Britain, France and Luxembourg as well as the United States, according to the documents found by Itar-Tass.
Quoting from the initial order to the camp commander in Tambov, the agency said, "The document is confirmed by evidence from local residents who were prisoners in local camps and who say that in addition to the soldiers of Hitler's army, there were Americans among the prisoners."
Investigations are now beginning, the agency added, to "help fulfill Yeltsin's promise to return every American detained here to his family . . . even if we are only talking about his remains or about information about his final years."
A joint U.S.-Russian commission, formed earlier this year, has been empowered to search across the breadth of the country and has been given access to all archives.
There are still 2,266 U.S. military personnel unaccounted for after the Vietnam War, more than 8,100 from the Korean War and nearly 79,000 from World War II. Virtually all are believed dead.