HANOI, Vietnam (AP) _ U.S. and Vietnamese negotiators open financial and political talks here Monday that could help lead to diplomatic relations between the two countries after nearly 20 years.

They are the first major political negotiations since the Paris Peace Agreement of 1973 that ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

The negotiations were initially aimed at resolving U.S. financial claims against Vietnam dating back to the end of the war in 1975.

But they were broadened to include the timing of the opening of liaison offices by Vietnam in Washington and by the United States in Hanoi, and the functions of each. Vietnam's human rights record will also be discussed.

The talks come on the heels of the lifting of a 19-year U.S. economic embargo against Vietnam by President Clinton on Feb. 3. Clinton said the lifting of the embargo did not constitute a normalization of relations.

But both U.S. and Vietnamese officials said the two sides appeared to be moving in that direction. The liaison offices are seen as a transitional step.

The U.S. team is headed by James Hall, the director of the State Department's Office of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia Affairs, and Ronald Bettauer, director of international claims and investment disputes.

The Vietnamese delegation is led by Nguyen Xuan Phong, acting director of the Americas Department, and Nguyen Qui Binh, acting director of the Department of International Law in the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

American claims against Vietnam total $230 million. These are mostly U.S. business investments in South Vietnam that were seized by the communist North when it defeated the U.S.-backed Saigon regime in 1975. Occidental Petroleum Corp. is believed to be one of the largest claimants.

The agenda also includes the status of U.S. government buildings seized after the war, including 34 in Saigon - renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the communists - and two in Hanoi.

The negotiators also planned to discuss Vietnamese assets currently valued at $290 million that remain frozen in the United States.

Alongside the talks, more than 100 U.S. specialists plus their Vietnamese counterparts are searching across the country for the remains of Americans missing in action from the war. The operation, ranging from the Chinese border to the South China Sea, began Saturday and will continue until March 22.

It is the first such operation since the U.S. trade embargo was lifted and the biggest since the end of the war, covering half of Vietnam's 50 provinces.

The United States lists 2,235 Americans unaccounted for, including 1,644 in Vietnam, 505 in Laos, 78 in Cambodia and 8 in China.