WASHINGTON -- President Bush warned yesterday that he will require Vietnam to make "a full accounting" of the fate of missing Americans before agreeing to establish full diplomatic relations with Hanoi.
Mr. Bush was awaiting a briefing today on the release of 4,000 Vietnamese photographs of U.S. prisoners and casualties.
The release of the photos was seen by some as part of an effort by the Vietnamese to significantly improve relations with the United States.
The president hailed release of the photos as a "major breakthrough," but he said that further review will be needed to assess their significance.
So far, there is no evidence that any of the missing Americans are alive.
Pentagon officials who have seen the photos have begun telling a few long-suffering families about the fate of their loved ones after a generation of waiting.
But some MIA family members expressed skepticism over the election-eve release of the photos.
They suggested it was motivated by the eagerness of both nations to resume commerce and to put their painful past behind them.
Retired Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. is scheduled to brief Mr. Bush at the White House today.
General Vessey led a delegation to Vietnam last weekend and gained access to a treasure trove of data about some of the 2,265 Americans still listed as missing in Indochina.
The general's mission produced "some very encouraging developments," Mr. Bush said.
But, he said, diplomatic recognition of Vietnam will be withheld "until I can say in total clear conscience to the missing-in-action families and POW families: 'Here is a full accounting.' "
Mr. Bush said he "would like to see full relations" between the two nations but said reports suggesting that could happen within three months "might be a little optimistic."
Other U.S. officials said steps toward normalization, such as allowing U.S. firms to begin negotiating future deals with Vietnamese companies after an 18-year trade embargo, could come as early as today.
The United States has never had diplomatic relations with the Hanoi government.
But twice in recent months it has relaxed economic restrictions on Vietnam, allowing international telephone links, the sale of medicine and visits by non-profit groups.
General Vessey's mission was hastily arranged after U.S. officials told their Vietnamese counterparts that they had learned of extensive files containing records and documents related to Americans captured or killed during the war.
U.S. defense officials said the documents now being reviewed should allow them to close dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of MIA cases.
Pentagon officials said "less than 10" families have been notified that the Vessey mission uncovered information about their loved ones, including that some are dead.
But other POW families and activists were skeptical.
They are embittered over the U.S. government's rush to embrace Hanoi's evidence of dead Americans, while dismissing photographs purportedly showing living POWs.
Shelby Robertson Quast, of Oakton, Va., the youngest daughter of missing Air Force pilot Col. John Leighton Robertson, played down the significance of the photographic cache.
"I think General Vessey is extremely ready to accept whatever will close this issue," she said.