Vietnam diplomat calls POW memo 'fabrication'

April 14, 1993|By New York Times News Service

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Vietnam's senior diplomat dealing with U.S. affairs described as a "clear fabrication" yesterday a document suggesting that 1,205 American prisoners of war were in North Vietnamese prisons in 1972, more than double the number eventually released.

The diplomat, Nguyen Xuan Phong, acting director of the Americas Department at the Foreign Ministry, said in a telephone interview from Hanoi that "we have very strong evidence" to prove "this document is not authentic -- a clear fabrication."

The document, recently discovered in the archives of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow, has alarmed former officials in Washington and scholars of the Vietnam War, who say it may prove that hundreds of prisoners were never released, and are now almost certainly dead.

The document is a Russian translation of what is described as a September 1972 report prepared for the Vietnam Politburo by Gen. Tran Van Quang, who is identified as the deputy chief of staff of the North Vietnamese army. It describes Hanoi's efforts to keep secret the number of U.S. prisoners.

The report says that in 1972, even as Vietnam was claiming that it held only 368 American prisoners, there were 1,205 Americans in North Vietnamese prisons.

Mr. Phong said the easiest way to prove that the document was a fabrication was to review General Quang's career. In 1972, he said, General Quang was not deputy chief of staff; he was the army commander in Military Region 4, in central Vietnam, a post he held from 1966 to 1974.

"Gen. Tran Van Quang had nothing to do with the general staff of the Vietnamese People's Army," Mr. Phong said.

A member of Mr. Phong's staff, Nguyen Ba Hung, said General Quang had never held been deputy chief of staff. "That's why it sounded very funny when we heard this report," he said. "Those who have knowledge about the war and about the army would have a better understanding."

General Quang, now retired, is the director of an organization of Vietnamese veterans. Foreign Ministry officials said that, while they had not spoken to General Quang about the document, his staff had said the document was a forgery.

The document's release comes at a delicate time: Vietnamese officials are preparing for meetings in Hanoi next week with John W. Vessey Jr., a retired Army general who has been dispatched by President Clinton to discuss the issue of missing servicemen.

When the general's visit was announced this month, the Vietnamese took it as a sign that Mr. Clinton might be prepared to move quickly to relax the 18-year-old U.S. embargo on trade and loans to Vietnam. Vietnam, one of the world's poorest nations, has abandoned Marxist economics and is eager for foreign investment -- specifically American -- in its newly free markets.

But Hanoi's optimism about the outcome of next week's meetings appears to have faded with the release of the document from the Soviet archives.

Now, it appears, Mr. Vessey's trip will focus largely on the authenticity of the document, and thus on the possibility that hundreds of prisoners were alive at the end of the war but were never freed.

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