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Soviets Apologize for Attacking 2 U.S. Airmen

September 19, 1987|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze apologized Friday for the shooting of an American serviceman by Soviet soldiers in East Germany, but the Pentagon said it would insist on a fuller explanation of the "unprovoked" attack.

Robert Sims, chief Pentagon spokesman, declined to rule out unspecified "further actions" in response to the attack in addition to formal protests that were lodged Thursday.

Shevardnadze, appearing at a news conference at the Soviet Embassy here, acknowledged that Soviet military personnel opened fire Thursday after confronting a vehicle carrying two U.S. servicemen attached to an accredited military liaison office in East Germany.

But Shevardnadze insisted the Soviets had fired only warning shots and that both sides were at fault.

Sims dismissed those assertions, saying the two Americans were outside any restricted area; had been fired upon with an automatic weapon from behind, and had done nothing to violate the terms of the 1947 agreement that established the Military Liaison Mission system.

'Totally Unjustifiable'

"This was an obviously serious incident that had almost tragic results," Sims said. "What we have done is protest this as totally unjustifiable. We've said that we expect a full explanation for the reasons for the incident."

Sims identified the two Americans as Air Force Capt. Bennett McCutcheon of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Air Force Master Sgt. Charles L. Barry of Tucson, Ariz. Barry, a 15-year veteran who was driving the vehicle, suffered a superficial wound from a bullet fragment to his left arm and is in good condition, the spokesman said.

Shevardnadze said the two Americans were "very close" to an area "which is prohibited to members of foreign military missions."

"They were taking pictures of Soviet military aircraft and also were engaging in radio and electronic gathering near the Soviet military facility," he said.

The Soviet foreign minister made no claim, however, that the U.S. servicemen had actually violated a restricted zone, nor did he attempt to explain why he said that the Americans were partially at fault.

'Warning Fire'

"When Soviet soldiers approached, the members of the mission tried to flee. And therefore there was warning fire, small arms fire," Shevardnadze said.

"The actions of both the U.S. and the Soviet soldiers in this case were a violation of the agreement on military liaison missions accredited to the Soviet and American commanders in the occupied zones of Germany," he said.

"At the same time we are conveying our apologies for what has happened and we state that the Soviet side will take necessary steps to exclude the possibility of any such incident in the future," the foreign minister said.

Sims agreed that the two Americans "were in the area of routine Soviet activity; that's their job."

"But this team was in an area that is not a restricted area," he added.

The military liaison missions were created in 1947 by the four occupying powers in Germany after World War II--Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States--to foster cooperation. The Soviet Union has a team in West Germany.

Intelligence Operations

The teams from all four countries now operate as thinly disguised intelligence-gathering operations, observing each other's military deployments and exercises. The teams are allowed to roam freely except in areas that have been posted off-limits.

The U.S. team in East Germany, based in Potsdam, consists of 14 men. They are provided special ID cards and license plates for their vehicles.

Thursday's incident was the most serious since March, 1985, when a Soviet sentry shot and killed Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson. In that case, the United States also charged that Nicholson was in an unrestricted area and was shot without provocation.

An agreement negotiated a year after that shooting was aimed at preventing a recurrence of such incidents. The Pentagon said at the time that Soviet sentries would be told how to identify U.S. personnel and instructed not to use deadly force against them when they were properly identified.

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