A senior Vietnamese official, signaling a possible change in government policy, said Saturday he believed Vietnam would accept forced repatriation of boat people who are sponsored by countries that send them back.

Nguyen Can, head of Vietnam's immigration department, told Western journalists his personal view was that illegal migration from Vietnam would end only if there were forced repatriation.He spoke only two days after Vu Khoan, an assistant minister of foreign affairs, said Hanoi would not back such a program.

Can told reporters: "I fully agree with his opinion but it is an official answer. Now I have given my own opinion."

"Each country has its own law. It is up to that country how they treat them (the boat people).

"Either they are allowed to stay, or they are sent back to Vietnam. If they are sent back, and those countries sponsor them, I think that we will accept them because we all live under the shadow of the flag of humanity."

Can spoke two weeks after Hong Kong Governor Sir David Wilson said the British colony would have to adopt forced repatriation of some of the 25,000 refugees jamming Hong Kong's camps if they did not return to Vietnam voluntarily or in some cases find a third country to accept them.

Western diplomats said Can's comments were significant.

"He may only have been speaking personally, but you can be sure it was a message they wanted to get across," said one.

Can was speaking as 75 former boat people began resuming their lives in Vietnam after becoming the first group to return voluntarily.

They flew in from Hong Kong on Thursday after Britain, Hong Kong, Vietnam and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) drew up an agreement covering their return.

Under the deal, Vietnam has agreed not to punish them and the UNHCR has promised to arrange the repatriation and monitor the returnees' progress.

Can said Saturday that one of the returnees faced criminal charges in connection with his escape to Hong Kong. He said the man had attacked and wounded another as he prepared to leave by boat.

He said it had been decided the man would be allowed to return to his home village, report to the police, and apologize to the victim.