VIENTIANE, Laos – Laos (search) on Monday handed over to the United States the remains believed to be of U.S. presidential candidate Howard Dean's (search) brother, an Australian friend and two American soldiers who disappeared in the country decades ago.
The remains thought to be of Charles Dean (search) and Australian Neil Sharman were exhumed earlier this month in central Laos following a tip by a Laotian villager.
Also excavated from other sites in northeastern Laos were remains suspected to be of two U.S. soldiers killed during the Vietnam War (search). Their names have not been released.
The remains were transferred to four aluminum caskets brought by a U.S. military C-130 cargo plane at the Vientiane airport. An honor guard draped one casket in an Australian flag and the other three in U.S. flags before reloading them on the plane, which flew to Hawaii where a forensic lab will positively identify the remains.
"I am pleased to hand over to you the remains ... Without the cooperation of the local people they would not have been able to find the remains," Laotian Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Phongsavath Boupha told the U.S. Ambassador to Laos, Douglas A. Hartwick, in a ceremony at the airport.
He called the hand-over "a symbolic victory" in relations between the two countries, adding that Laos wants to put the past behind and move on.
"Today marks another special day for repatriation of remains from the Indochina war," Hartwick said.
"This cooperation is a key element in bilateral relations," he said.
Charles Dean disappeared in 1974 while the 24-year-old University of North Carolina graduate was traveling through Southeast Asia with Sharman as tourists. Both are believed to have been imprisoned and killed by communist insurgents who took control of Laos in 1975.
An investigation into their disappearance began in 1991, and the first of two joint U.S.-Laotian excavation teams began digging in August.
A Laotian villager led the investigators to a site near a boulder in a rice paddy near the town of Lakxao, about 25 miles west of the Vietnamese border in Bolikhamxai province.
The site was pocked with bomb craters and had to be cleared of Vietnam War-era ordnance, excavation team leader Elizabeth Martinson said Sunday. She would not give any other information about the villager or the remains.
But Howard Dean said last week that they include bones, a sock, a pair of shoes and a bracelet. He said his family is convinced they belong to his brother.
Howard Dean is the front-runner among nine candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in next year's U.S. presidential election.
The remains of 182 Americans have been recovered in Laos since U.S.-sponsored recovery teams began operating in the country in 1992. Some 387 Americans are still missing in Laos from the Vietnam War era.
Phongsavath, the Laotian minister, expressed the hope that the handover would persuade the U.S. Congress to establish normal trade relations with Laos.
The United States has diplomatic ties but no trade links with Laos because of concerns about the communist government's human rights record.
"We hope that this will help the American people and the Congress to understand that we have also shown our goodwill to cooperate" on the issue of missing Americans, Phongsavath said.