GROWING United States regional interests will not be allowed to outweigh finding US servicemen missing in action (MIA) in any decision to restore full ties with Vietnam, the head of a presidential mission said last night. Wrapping up a two day visit to Vietnam, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Hershel Gober said Washington's quest for its war dead was 'by far and away the paramount issue involved in any decision'. 'Nothing can get away from the fact that normalisation will only happen when the President is sure of the fullest possible accounting,' Mr Gober said, revealing regional security, human rights and narcotic intelligence were also discussed with Vietnam's leaders. 'It's frustrating for many, but it's more frustrating for the families of those who are missing. 'It has to be understood that this is an emotional issue for many Americans. It's a very important issue to President Clinton. 'America has always tried never to leave its warriors on the battlefield.' Mr Gober headed a team including Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific Winston Lord and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for POW/MIA Affairs James Wold, in meetings with Vietnamese leaders. His comments come amid State Department moves in recent days to make clear the US interest in peace across the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Washington has refused to take sides in tussles over the Spratly Islands but stated that free sea and air navigation was a 'fundamental interest of the United States . . . essential for . . . peace and prosperity'. After meetings with Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet and Communist Party General Secretary Do Muoi and senior Defence, Interior and Foreign Ministry officials, the delegation reported 'tangible progress'. 'Whether that progress has been enough is a decision that only President Clinton can make,' Mr Gober said. 'We will report to him that we have received assurances from Vietnamese leaders at the highest levels that they would continue their efforts on this important humanitarian task.' Vietnamese officials provided 'valuable information' to advance the cause of fullest possible accounting, including 200 pages of maps, witness data and analysis. Mr Lord said the documents still had to be analysed but it appeared a lot of work had been carried out to collate the information. However, he said while the US was 'grateful and encouraged', it was 'impossible to be 100 per cent sure that everything they know or hold' had been handed over. 'They have pledged their full co-operation . . . and we will continue to encourage them for any information that may help.' It is understood crucial archival records are among the documents, which may shed light on the 55 servicemen missing despite US intelligence showing they had last been seen alive. The 55 form a key priority in the hunt for the remains of 1,619 US servicemen. Despite the infusion of nearly US$20 million (HK$154 million) a year on joint Vietnam-US searches - involving more than 100 US military searchers - only 63 remains have been conclusively identified since work began in 1992. Mr Lord tried to brush-off criticism in Vietnam's Communist Party press this week that the US was meddling in Vietnamese affairs despite committing a string of human rights abuses itself. Vietnam was not being 'singled out' but the maintaining of 'universal rights' was in United States global interest. Hanoi-based diplomats view the visit, the third such annual mission, as by far the most significant.