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HANOI, Vietnam (AP) _ A deadly helicopter crash strengthened ties among Americans and Vietnamese searching for remains of U.S. soldiers listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War, a U.S. official said Thursday.

``After fighting each other for so long, it's a terrible way for us to come closer together, but we have,'' said Lt. Col. Steve Hawley, the commander of the U.S. MIA office in Hanoi.

In April last year, seven Americans and nine Vietnamese were killed when their helicopter slammed into a fog-shrouded mountain in central Quang Binh province during a search mission.

The victims included many of the most experienced personnel on both sides, including the head of the U.S. MIA office in Hanoi and his appointed successor.

Hawley said improved cooperation included a decision by Vietnam's communist government to allow the MIA office to fly an American flag in its compound.

The government also provided speedy assistance last month when villagers in southern Vietnam found the wreckage of a Vietnam War-era U.S. helicopter with two bodies inside, he said.

One set of remains had a dog tag, personal papers and a U.S. military ID card. Both remains have been turned over to the MIA office and are being studied, Hawley said.

Accounting for missing Americans from the Vietnam War has been a cornerstone of U.S.-Vietnam relations since the two sides first began their tentative detente in the late 1980s.

The countries have been cooperating on joint recovery operations since 1992.

A new mission begins in early October, with digs scheduled at five crash sites believed to contain the remains of six U.S. pilots.

Each excavation costs about $1.5 million, Hawley said.

Vietnamese government helicopters are used for travel to the sites, which have become more remote.

``We've done the things that were the easiest to find and easiest to get, and so it's getting increasingly difficult,'' Hawley said.

He said several new safety measures have been introduced since the crash of the Russian-made MI-17 helicopter last year, including tighter weather standards for takeoffs and a policy that the commander and deputy commander of the MIA office will no longer fly on the same aircraft.

Since American forces ended their direct military involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973, the remains of 679 American servicemen have been identified and 1,905 are still unaccounted for, including 1,441 in Vietnam, 398 in Laos, 58 in Cambodia and eight in China.

About 78,000 Americans remain unaccounted for from World War II and 8,100 from the Korean War.

Vietnam says it has 300,000 soldiers still unaccounted for.

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On the Net:

Joint Task Force-Full Accounting: http://www.pacom.mil/jtffa.htm