IF you listen to Washington officials, America's top priority in its future dealings with Hanoi can be found amid the leeches and snakes of the mountains and jungles of Quang Tri, central Vietnam. Here at the site of a wrecked US Army helicopter obliterated by a hillside 27 years ago, President Bill Clinton's top defence envoy declared the costly, often futile hunt for American remains must continue unabated. 'This whole effort is an extraordinary human issue and it is a matter of the most fundamental importance to families all across America,' National Security Adviser Anthony Lake said. 'It is in the end a reflection of American values. As the President has said, Americans take care of their own,' he said, adding that Vietnam had vowed to continue to help. Mr Lake, backed by Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, then flew to Danang after declaring that the hunt for 1,606 Americans still unaccounted for must be the issue to guide fast-broadening ties with its former enemy. The Huey helicopter crashed in poor visibility during a routine supply run across some of the most hostile territory in the former South Vietnam in February 1969. Mr Lake was shown the results of a week-long search involving more than 60 Lao jungle tribesmen and at least 10 US soldiers and scientists - a couple of teeth, several tiny bone fragments and a pen clip. Workers carving a landing pad on the peak above also found cans of beer and old army boots, but it is thought they were left by gunners not around on the day of the crash. Military officials say even if more bodily remains are found, it is no guarantee that laboratories in Hawaii will ever be able to identify them. Since 1992, 360 sets of remains have been sent back and 117 names scrubbed from the 2,100 missing across Southeast Asia. No trace is expected to be found of 600 men who were shot down over the sea or died in massive explosions, but their names remain on the list. Only identifiable body parts - not circumstantial evidence - can be used to remove them. Mr Lake refused to say when political decisions might be taken to speed up the end of the issue by declaring that the 'fullest possible accounting' had been achieved, insisting it would be wrong to set an 'artificial timetable'. 'We should do whatever we have to do . . . we don't put a cost on efforts to try to recover American remains. We should always err on the side of being sure of what we are telling the families rather than guessing.'