US to search for remains of World War II soldiers in Myanmar

The U.S. military is preparing its first search in eight years for remains of American soldiers lost in Myanmar during World War II, an official said Friday.

The resumption of the search is a product of the revived U.S. ties with the country also known as Burma after its government initiated democratic reforms.

The Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command said that a coordination team will head to Myanmar Jan. 21 to prepare for a visit by investigators a month later.

About 730 Americans are missing, mostly U.S. air crews that went down in the rugged northern mountains and dense jungles while flying supplies from India to China.

Spokeswoman Michelle Thomas said starting Feb. 21, about one dozen investigators, mostly linguists and analysts, are scheduled to spend three weeks in Yangon Division and Mandalay Division to pursue leads. They will talk to known witnesses and obtain oral histories from government and military officials.

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Another mission is planned for the summer, in hopes of gathering enough information to send in recovery teams later.

The remains of seven airmen were recovered after U.S. recovery operations in 2003 and 2004, during what was a rare instance of cooperation with Myanmar's military before it halted the searches. The airmen's C-47 Skytrain crashed in a remote area of northern Kachin state in 1944, probably downed by Japanese ground fire. They were buried with full honors in Arlington Cemetery in 2010.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged resumption of remains recovery when she made a landmark visit to Myanmar a year ago. Washington has since suspended economic sanctions, and in November Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, further cementing ties.

Most of the crash sites are in Kachin state, but JPAC is conducting its initial investigations in other regions. Fighting between ethnic Kachin rebels and government forces, including air strikes, has intensified in recent months, likely placing many parts of that province off-limits to U.S. search parties.

Tens of thousands of villagers have been displaced in the fighting, prompted fresh criticism of Myanmar's military from human rights groups.

A British excavation team is currently searching for a stash of World War II-era Spitfire fighter aircraft in Myanmar and has so far managed to locate one wooden crate believed to contain one of the planes.