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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hotline opens as doubts on POWs grow

The U. S. -Russian prisoner of war commission has opened a hotline to field tips about missing Americans on the territory of the former Soviet Union, but the effort -- like the search itself-- has already proved more difficult than first thought.

Russian television broadcast the hotline number in a public service announcement at 5 P. M. Sunday, but there were no operators to answer the phone until Monday afternoon, according to organizers of the project.

The well-intentioned but ill-equipped hotline is symbolic of the disorganization in what has become a wild goose chase for clues on American POWs who might still be alive.

President Boris Yeltsin raised hopes in the United States during his meetings there this month that some missing Americans might be found alive in prison camps in Russia or other former Soviet republics, but the U. S. special envoy on POWs, Ambassador Malcolm Toon, has since expressed serious doubts.

Asked about the prospects of finding American POWs alive in the former Soviet Union, Toon said Friday that Yeltsin "genuinely misspoke" on the issue during his summit with President George Bush.

As for the hotline, the sole operator is the commission's secretary, Tatyana Pavlovna, who said she has to leave the telephone unmanned for part of the day to tend to other responsibilities. As of midafternoon Monday, Pavlovna said, she had not received any calls.

Vladimir Kozlov, deputy for the joint POW commission, said there are no plans to hire other operators.

The televised public service announcement was made at the request of Presidents Yeltsin and Bush. It featured the POW commission's co-chairmen retired Colonel General Dmitry Volkogonov and Ambassador Toon, who appealed for any information on Americans sighted in Soviet camps, and asked viewers to call 206 35 79 or 206 33 04.

Toon, a former ambassador to Moscow, was sent here last week to expedite the POW search. Asked about the lack of equipment to help centralize incoming information, he was realistic.

"I think it will be an awful mess", he said. "But at least we will have people in this office which we now occupy jointly, and maybe they'll have the necessary equipment. Maybe they'll help the Russians deal in an orderly fashion with the flow of information".

Toon said that his Russian colleagues would issue a firm statement within the next two weeks as to whether any Americans are still being held in labor camps or psychiatric hospitals. "They are under. centralized control", Toon said of the facilities. "It should be easy enough to do".

Still, Toon said he expected the search to take another six months before it can be considered completed.

"It is a highly emotional subject back home", Toon said. "There is a perception with Americans that we didn't give a damn about POWs and MIAs. There is also recognition now that we have not done the job properly".