Vietnam, U.S. sign liaison pact

January 29, 1995|By New York Times News Service

HANOI, Vietnam -- With toasts of sweet Russian champagne, U.S. and Vietnamese diplomats marked the signing yesterday of an agreement that will allow the United States to raise the flag over the first U.S. diplomatic mission in Vietnam in nearly 20 years.

The agreement signed in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, gave the United States immediate custody of a modern nine-story office building here that will serve as the base of operations for U.S. diplomats until the two countries are able to reach agreement on the establishment of full diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies.

U.S. diplomats, who have been stationed in Hanoi for more than a year, said they would begin to move into the building this weekend and expected to open its doors to the public and raise the U.S. flag on Friday, the day after the Vietnamese end their celebration of Tet, the lunar new year and Vietnam's most important holiday.

Their Vietnamese counterparts are expected to take over within days the former South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C., abandoned after the fall of the Saigon government in 1975, and to use it as their liaison office.

Until yesterday, U.S. diplomats in Hanoi had worked out of a compound maintained by the Defense Department for its investigators trying to determine the fate of more than 1,600 U.S. servicemen still listed as missing in action from the Vietnam War.

It is the issue of the missing Americans that is still holding up full diplomatic relations between Hanoi and Washington, with the United States insisting it will not open an embassy here and send an ambassador until there is further progress in the investigations.

"I'm pleased and honored to be given the heavy responsibility of achieving the fullest possible accounting of servicemen missing in action," said James Hall, the U.S. diplomat who will direct the mission and who signed the agreement. "This is the top priority vTC of our establishing the liaison office in Hanoi."

Mr. Hall served in Vietnam in the 1970s, when he was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, which was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after it fell to North Vietnamese forces.

U.S. diplomats in Hanoi were told by the State Department to avoid all but the most innocuous public statements yesterday to reporters, apparently out of fear that the agreement would anger leading Republicans in Congress.

The signing ceremony in a Vietnamese government reception hall was notably brief and subdued.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, joined eight other members of Congress in sending a letter Tuesday to President Clinton, asking that the opening of the liaison office be postponed. They said that Vietnam still appeared to be holding back information about missing Americans.

Relations between the United States and Vietnam have been warming for several years, with the most important step toward the establishment of full diplomatic relations taken last February, when Mr. Clinton lifted a 19-year-old U.S. trade embargo.

Under yesterday's agreement, the United States will also take custody of the old Saigon embassy, although diplomats say it is unclear whether the crumbling structure, which until last month was used as offices by the Vietnamese state oil company, can be made habitable.

The U.S. liaison office in Hanoi is the first U.S. diplomatic mission in Hanoi since December 1955, when a U.S. consulate here was closed. The United States withdrew its presence from Hanoi after refusing to recognize the communist government, led by Ho Chi Minh, that had replaced a French colonial regime in 1954.

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