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Swindlers, Rambos and True Believers in Hitherto Fruitless MIA Search With PM-MIA Photo

July 18, 1991

BANGKOK Thailand (AP) _ A grainy photograph with a cryptic message has again raised some hopes that Americans who never returned from the war in Indochina may still be alive 16 years after the guns fell silent.

The photo shows three men purported to be American prisoners in Indochina who appear to be holding up a sign saying: ″Photo LD-25-5-1990″ and ″NNTK 3/8 K.B.E. 19.″

U.S. intelligence analysts who have studied the photograph for nine months say they cannot verify its authenticity. Relatives of the men pictured are convinced it’s real.

The hitherto fruitless hunt for MIAs has featured official U.S.-Vietnamese and U.S.-Laotian searches; ″Rambo-style″ forays into Laos by ex-jungle fighters; dedicated patriots trying to piece together tiny clues and swindlers preying on the emotions of relatives who cling to shreds of hope.

The Pentagon lists 2,274 Americans as missing in action in the war, including 1,657 in Vietnam, 528 in Laos, 83 in Cambodia and six in Chinese coastal waters.

The communist nations have repeatedly denied holding any Americans.

The U.S. government says it does not exclude the possibility of POWs, but officials concede that this is unlikely and note most ″live sighting″ reports prove to be insubstantial or outright fraudulent.

A common opinion among Indochina analysts who are not emotionally or politically involved in the issue is that a few Americans might have remained behind, probably of their own free will.

But they generally discount reports of large POW camps, graphically described down to the what the prisoners eat for breakfast.

Such reports - and purported evidence like the photograph - frequently are gathered or concocted in Thailand, which borders on Cambodia and Laos and serves as a gateway to Vietnam.

They are carried by refugees from these countries or various anti-communist guerrilla groups, particulary those operating in Laos.

The refugees are often keen to provide stories about Americans they claim to have seen or heard about in their countries, hoping this will enhance their chances of being resettled in the United States.

The guerrillas are eager for good publicity, and cash, which some private MIA hunters have offered in exchange for information or the remains of Americans.

The guerrillas have produced elaborate maps and detailed accounts of alleged POW camps as well as human bones, which on analysis have generally turned out to be those of Asians or animals.

Several million dollars have been spent on the private efforts, with the MIA hunters tapping families of the missing and other private contributors for funds. Over the years supporters have included heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, movie stars Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston and billionaire H. Ross Perot.

Some of the private searchers appear to be dedicated and honest; others are not. All believe they need to take the matter into their own hands because they claim the U.S. government has not done enough.

″I’m afraid only God, the mothers and the Special Forces want them back,″ said ex-Green Beret James ″Bo″ Gritz, who staged several unsuccessful commando-style forays into Laos during the 1980s.

His activities were curbed after U.S. authorities charged him with using a passport under a false name during his trips to Southeast Asia.

The U.S. government and some MIA groups have criticized Gritz and others as ″Rambos″ who were counterproductive to a real effort to solve the MIA issue.

Other unorthodox methods have been tried.

In 1987, a group of relatives of MIAs, led by former Congressman Bill Hendon, floated plastic bags on the Mekong River which borders Laos. Inside were leaflets offering a reward of $2.4 million for information that would lead to the return of American POWs.

A year earlier, Perot offered $4.2 million to obtain a videotape purportedly showing POWs in Laos. The tape was offered by Robin Gregson, a British citizen once convicted on drug charges in Thailand, but has yet to materialize.

The photograph now at the center of attention was obtained by the Pentagon in September 1990 and came from the American Defense Institute, an organization in Alexandria, Va., which has previously made claims of MIA sightings.

A 1987 letter from the Defense Intelligence Agency to Rep. Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y., said the organization has made false claims in the past in raising money.

But as in many of the previous cases of purported evidence, the relatives believe that the men pictured on the photo are their loved ones.

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