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HOPE LINGERS THAT GIS MAY STILL BE ALIVE

Rambo-style forays have been launched, $2.4 million in reward money offered and swindles perpetrated on the very slim odds that American soldiers still languish in the jails and jungles of Indochina.

Nearly 20 years after the Indochina War ended for the United States, three decades after the first casualties, the question of what happened to America's missing from that conflict remains vital.It is fueled by Hollywood movies and con artists, the suffering of MIA family members and revelations by senior U.S. officials indicating the American public has not always been fully informed about the fates of the missing.

The issue also continues to dominate U.S.-Vietnamese relations, with Washington insisting it receive a satisfactory MIA accounting before establishing diplomatic ties with its former enemy.

The Defense Department lists 2,266 service personnel as still missing - 1,658 in Vietnam, 519 in Laos, 81 in Cambodia and eight in Chinese coastal waters.

U.S. experts and their Indochinese counterparts have been engaged in stepped-up ground searches in all three countries, with the 19th such joint search in Vietnam recently completed. Slowly and painstakingly, the MIA roster is being pared down - although it is conceded that it will be impossible to resolve every case.

High priority is being given to 135 so-called "discrepancy cases" of American servicemen believed to be alive at the time of their capture but neither released in 1973 nor later reported as dead.

Reports of live Americans in Laos have been particularly numerous. Some private "MIA hunters" still maintain several hundred are being held in remote locations.

In the 1980s, several guerrilla-style operations into Laos were staged by private Americans but failed to locate any MIAs. Receiving the most publicity were those headed by James "Bo" Gritz, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran and now presidential candidate.

Another approach was tried in 1987 by a private group that included former Congressman Bill Hendon and MIA relatives. The group offered $2.4 million to anyone who could produce a live American POW, sending their message in balloons floated across the Mekong River boundary between Thailand and Laos.

The offer helped spur a major Indochinese cottage industry. Over the years, fake and real identification tags, aircraft parts, animal and human bones, dubious information and doctored photographs have been offered for sale to American officials and private citizens.

Everyone from impoverished Indochinese villagers to Thai middlemen and American hucksters have taken part in the grisly "bone business," which preys on the emotions of MIA families and hinders official searches by disrupting crash and grave sites.

The bottom line of all this effort - official and private - is that not a single live American MIA has been produced.

The only American to emerge in postwar Indochina was Marine Robert Garwood, who was captured in Vietnam and voluntarily stayed behind until 1979.