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updated 1/27/2011 2:15:22 PM ET 2011-01-27T19:15:22

Authorities said Thursday they fear dozens of veterans could lie in unmarked graves at a Mississippi military cemetery after they found two unidentified coffins and used radar to detect other possible plots.

The two coffins and other potential graves were found in sections of Vicksburg National Military Cemetery that were opened in the 1940s for World War I, World War II and Korean War veterans, National Park Service officials said at a news conference. The sprawling cemetery is the final resting place for more than 18,000 veterans, mostly Union soldiers from the Civil War.

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The problems were discovered after workers preparing a burial site for a World War II veteran found a coffin in August. Another coffin was found nearby. The veteran was buried elsewhere in the cemetery and the graves were left alone, authorities said.

The cemetery stopped offering burials in 1961, except for veterans who had prior arrangements.

The park service asked for help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which used ground-penetrating radar devices to search for graves. Those sites were then checked by pushing metal rods into the ground, which in several cases hit solid objects that could be coffins.

The National Park Service's Southeast Archaeological Center has also been helping. Officials said a preliminary analysis of their research identified "eight probable and 48 possible unmarked graves."

Vicksburg National Military Park Superintendent Michael Madell said officials haven't found any documentation to help identify the unmarked graves.

Madell said federal authorities are trying to respect the dead by using research methods that don't physically disturb the graves, like the radar devices.

The cemetery is at the site one of the Civil War's decisive battles, the siege of Vicksburg, a key Confederate stronghold on the bluffs of the Mississippi River.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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