The Vietnam Red Cross Society will establish the country's first nationwide fund to help victims suffering from exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, an official said on Tuesday.

The official said many areas across the country had already set up local funds, but a decree signed last month by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai instructed the Vietnam Red Cross to set up a nationwide vehicle for contributions.Money would come from the Vietnamese community, organizations abroad, profits of the fund's own investments and the state budget, the official said. The fund would be formally launched on Friday, he added.

During the Vietnam War, the United States sprayed millions of pounds of chemical defoliants over vast areas of the country in an attempt to prevent communist forces using forest and jungle cover to carry out operations.

Agent Orange, containing highly toxic dioxins, was the best known of those com-pounds.

The issue remains a sore point in Hanoi's ties with Washington 23 years after the Vietnam War ended and three years after the two countries established diplomatic relations. Moves by Vietnam to win compensation from the United States have made little headway.

The Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper recently quoted professor Hoang Dinh Cau, chairman of Vietnam's 10-80 Committee, as saying nearly 2 million Vietnamese were affected by toxic chemicals. This includes tens of thousands of children born with birth defects. Agent Orange has also been connected with cancer.

The 10-80 Committee specializes in investigating the consequences of the use of chemicals during the Vietnam War.

The Red Cross official said research would be carried out by several ministries to get an accurate picture on the number of victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam by the end of next year.