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Vietnam gave a swift official welcome Saturday to the nomination of former Vietnam War veteran Douglas "Pete" Peterson as the first United States ambassador to Hanoi.

A foreign ministry spokesman, reading from a prepared statement, described the move as "an active step contributing toward the further development of relations between the two countries."He said Vietnam was "actively preparing" to appoint its own ambassador to Washington.

The nomination of Peterson, 60, a Florida Democrat and former fighter pilot who spent 61/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was announced by White House spokesman David Johnson Friday.

Johnson told reporters the prospective ambassador's first priority would be the "fullest possible accounting" of American servicemen still listed as missing from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.

But Peterson's nomination, which has been widely expected for several months, still has to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

United States officials have indicated the confirmation process could be difficult because of sensitivities over both the missing-in-action issue and the broader issue of policy toward a former enemy.

Clinton is expected to clear the way for sending an ambassador by certifying soon, possibly as early as next week, that Vietnam is "cooperating in full faith" with efforts to answer the remaining questions about Americans still missing from the war.

A U.S. military spokeswoman in Hanoi said Saturday that according to figures issued in March some 2,154 U.S. servicemen were still listed as missing-in-action in Indochina with 1,609 in Vietnam.

Most are known to have died but their remains have not been found.

The United States and Vietnam normalized diplomatic ties in July last year. The first U.S. Embassy in Hanoi was officially opened a few weeks later in August during a visit by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

But despite those moves, the former adversaries have not yet reached agreement on full economic and trade normalization. In addition, a series of hard-line Vietnamese statements in recent months has indicated lingering distrust.