Hundreds of American servicemen were shuttled through a clandestine network of prison camps in China during the Korean War, say formerly secret U.S. Army intelligence reports, which speculate that many died in captivity from malnutrition or no medical care.

Rumors have persisted for years that China, which intervened on North Korea's side in the 1950-53 war, took large numbers of U.S. captives for interrogation and indoctrination in camps inside China and never accounted for them.Declassified reports in the files of the Army's assistant chief of staff for intelligence now make clear that the United States knew of the prisoners, closely tracked their movements and feared for their lives.

On a visit to Beijing in January, Defense Secretary William Cohen asked top Chinese officials to open People's Liberation Army record archives and other files that might help account for missing U.S. servicemen.

About 8,100 are unaccounted for from the Korean War.

Cohen got no explicit assurances from President Jiang Zemin, but a Cohen aide present in the meetings said lower-level Chinese officials indicated Jiang's nonresponse should be interpreted as tacit acceptance.

China has consistently maintained that all POW questions were settled at the end of the war. Chinese troops entered the fray in the fall of 1950 in a surprise offensive that killed and captured thousands of U.S. and other United Nations troops.

It has been well documented that China, with Russian help, ran most of the POW camps in North Korea. Less well understood has been the extent of POW camps in China and what became of American and other prisoners held there.

"One of the most significant features in U.N. POW treatment and policy is the movement of U.N. POWs into Manchuria and into South China," an Army intelligence summary dated Dec. 15, 1951, said. Its unidentified author added that he believed "Manchurian camps house a great many U.S. POWs, and Manchuria is a staging area or collecting point for U.S. POWs." The Army intelligence documents leave little doubt that Chinese prison camps existed and Americans were held in some.