SENIOR Russian officials in charge of the investigation into the fate of Americans held captive by the Soviet Union are unable to confirm the startling assertion by Russian President Boris Yeltsin that Vietnam-era prisoners of war (POWs) were held in Soviet prisons and could still be alive.
Russian officials have recently provided evidence of American POWs from World War II and the Korean War, as well as fliers from downed spy flights during the 1950s, who were imprisoned here. But until June 15, there was no support for the oft-rumored transfer here of American POWs from Vietnam.
"Our archives have shown that it is true," Mr. Yeltsin told NBC-TV when asked about Vietnam war prisoners, "some of them were transferred to the territory of the former USSR and were kept in labor camps. We don't have complete data and can only surmise that some of them may still be alive," the Russian leader said in an interview on his plane to Washington for a two-day summit.
But the official responsible for searching those archives for such information told the Monitor on June 16 that the only US soldiers who came to the former Soviet Union were deserters.
"We do not have any evidence of American POWs who are still kept in this country," says Sergei Osipov, deputy to Col. Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, the Russian historian who co-chairs the US-Russian commission investigating the fate of American POWs.
"We have data pertaining to POWs from different periods of history, that is World War II and the Korean War," Mr. Osipov said. "As for Vietnam, we can speak about a group of four to 10 deserters who crossed the front line, found themselves in the hands of the Soviet secret services and then were transferred to Soviet territory." All of those deserters were eventually shipped to other countries of their choice, the official said. He offered new information about a Korean-American soldier who defected some time in 1963-64 and went to North Korea.
The Russian official was reluctant to comment directly on Yeltsin's statement. "It is probably not a very accurate translation of what Yeltsin actually said," he suggests. "Or, more likely, the president has many sources of information and he has used one we don't know of."
The joint US-Russian commission, which is co-chaired by former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Malcolm Toon, was formed earlier this spring. As recently as its meeting last week, Osipov says, no evidence of the type suggested by Yeltsin was mentioned.
The commission did find considerable evidence of American POWs from earlier conflicts who were held in Soviet prisons, a fact previously denied by Soviet governments, including that of former President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Yeltsin, in a letter sent last week to the US Senate Select Committee on POW and MIA Affairs, provided new revelations from that investigation.
In the letter, the Russian leader said more than 23,000 US citizens held in Nazi prisons were brought to the Soviet Union by the Red Army at the end of World War II. Of those, 22,554 were repatriated in 1945-46, but some never returned. Russian officials have raised the possibility that a few of those could still be alive today.
The Yeltsin letter also asserted for the first time that the Soviet Union had taken 12 US Air Force crewmen prisoner in the 1950s from nine downed spy flights. The archival evidence showed that as of Aug. 1, 1953, eight Americans were held in Soviet prisons and camps and four others in special psychiatric clinics, the letter said.
There were also Americans taken prisoner in Korea during the Korean civil war whom Yeltsin said were under the control of the Chinese forces fighting along with their North Korean allies. A total of 2,800 US citizens ended up in Soviet hands after those wars, a Yeltsin spokesman said in Washington June 15, many in prison where most of them died.
YELTSIN'S letter was hailed as new era of openness on the part of Moscow. As Yeltsin pointed out himself, "the assurances by the former USSR ledership to the effect that the problems of MIAs on its territory was nonexistent was untrue."
But Yeltsin's letter of last week contained no mention of Vietnam-era POWs, despite the fact that this issue had been repeatedly raised by the Senate committee in visits to Moscow and in the work of the bilateral commission.
The letter did refer to several American deserters, actually antiwar defectors, who were moved clandestinely from Japan to Soviet Union, moving on from there to Europe.
These cases are well known however.