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MIA team grounds helicopters

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HANOI, Vietnam — A task force searching for Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War will temporarily stop using helicopters because of the April crash that killed all 16 people on board, a U.S. military official said Tuesday.

Because of safety concerns, the MIA task force has scaled back operations for its current mission, which began Monday and runs through Aug. 7, spokesman Capt. Marc Lago said.

"We have taken on cases and investigations that mean less risk for team members out in the field," Lago said.

Helicopters will only be used for medical evacuations, he said.

On April 7, seven Americans and nine Vietnamese died when their Russian-made MI-17 helicopter slammed into a fog-shrouded mountain in central Quang Binh province.

Officials believe bad weather was the primary cause of the crash, although the investigation is not yet finished. The 16 were part of an advance team for a 95-member group that was to excavate six sites where U.S. planes crashed during the war, which ended in 1975.

Helicopters are necessary to reach many remote search sites.

MIA operations are being reviewed by Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, in the wake of the April accident.

Blair is expected to authorize the use of helicopters for future operations with modifications to enhance safety, Lago said. The updated procedures have not yet been made public.

Meanwhile, Laos handed over remains believed to be those of three U.S. servicemen missing in action from the Vietnam War, the Lao state news agency reported Tuesday.

Phongsavath Boupha, the deputy foreign minister, made the presentation to Karen Stewart, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Laos, at an airport in the central province of Savannakhet on Saturday, the Khao San Pathet Lao agency reported.

The remains were found during the latest joint Lao-American searches of five sites in central provinces of Savannakhet, Bolikamsay and Khammouane, the report said.

A statement issued by the U.S. Joint Task Force-Full Accounting said the remains would undergo forensic identification at the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.