A congessional staff report conducted for Sen. Jesse Helms questions the government's long-held contention that no Americans who fought in the Vietnam War are still being held captive in Southeast Asia.

The interim report, released Monday, contends that the Pentagon adopted its position about missing Americans and then discredited evidence to the contrary.Information "uncovered during this inquiry provides enough corroboration to cast doubt upon the veracity of the U.S. government's conclusion," said the report by the Republican staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The government has contended there is no evidence that American prisoners are still alive in Southeast Asia - or that any were left behind alive after U.S. prisoners returned in 1973.

But the staff said, "Classified, declassified and unclassified information all confirm one startling fact: that the Defense Department in April 1974 concluded beyond a doubt that several hundred living American POWs remained in captivity in Southeast Asia."

The information also does not rule out the likelihood that Americans are still being held, the report said.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Ken Satterfield, said the department had not received the new report and had no comment.

The report said defense intelligence discredited - often in error - live-sighting reports about U.S. personnel from hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the 1970s and 1980s.

It also contended that some witnesses may have been intimidated and that information was dismissed on technicalities.

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Defense Intelligence Agency has received nearly 12,000 reports on missing Americans, most of them from Indochinese refugees. None has panned out, the Pentagon has said.

Vietnam accepts U.S. proposal

Vietnam has accepted a U.S. proposal to station a permanent U.S. representative in Hanoi for the first time to deal with efforts to account for Americans still missing in action from the Vietnam War, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach said Tuesday. It would be the first time the United States has had a full-time representative in communist Vietnam. He said he did not know when the representative would arrive but that Vietnam was already arranging for housing. Thach also dismissed a Senate report that there was evidence Americans were still being held captive.