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Crisis in Yugoslavia

'Free at Last,' 3 Soldiers Arrive at U.S. Air Base

Yugoslavia: The former POWs are greeted by a wildly cheering crowd in Germany. Administration says release will not lessen the intensity of NATO bombing.

May 03, 1999|ALISSA J. RUBIN and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RAMSTEIN, Germany — Relief, jubilance and exhaustion washed over the faces of three U.S. soldiers as they stepped onto firm ground at a U.S. Air Force base here Sunday after being released by Yugoslavia after 32 days in captivity.

The three were greeted by a crowd of wildly cheering Army personnel as well as some German civilians who had waited for hours on the tarmac to wave American flags and hand-lettered signs saying, "It doesn't get any better than this."

Standing at attention under a sparkling spring sky as the three soldiers stepped off the C-9 medical transport plane at Ramstein Air Base were 35 troops from the soldiers' own division who presented their guns in a show of respect for their comrades, who arrived after a brief stop in Zagreb, Croatia.

The formal military ceremony with its solemn moments--as the three men, each carrying a folded American flag, walked slowly down the steps of the plane saluting--contrasted with the scene earlier in the day in Zagreb, when their words during a brief interview were filled with relief and excitement.

There, they walked off the plane chanting a civil rights slogan: "Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last."

The three soldiers--Staff Sgts. Andrew Ramirez, 24, of East Los Angeles and Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smith's Creek, Mich., and Spc. Steven Gonzales of Huntsville, Texas--all appeared to be in good spirits and will be reunited with their families today in Germany.

Ramirez said: "We're doing good. We're healthy. As you can see, we're happy, very happy."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who secured the men's release as the leader of an interfaith delegation to Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, suggested that the U.S. and its allies should stop their bombing of Yugoslavia and launch new diplomacy that could end the ongoing conflict over Yugoslavia's disputed Kosovo region. He also called upon President Clinton to meet with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Talking to reporters at Ramstein, the civil rights leader said: "Diplomacy deserves reciprocity. Let's seize the opportunity."

Jackson said he planned to meet with Clinton, perhaps as early as today, to deliver a letter from Milosevic with proposals to end the 5-week-old air war.

Yugoslavia also challenged the West to make a reciprocal gesture. Deputy Foreign Minister Nebojsa Vujovic said: "We played our part in goodwill, as a goodwill gesture, and it's up to those who enjoyed the benefits of this gesture to decide what is the next step they are supposed to take."

But Clinton, in a written statement, and his top aides, during Sunday television appearances, all said that Jackson's successful mission would not stop or shorten the war.

"As we welcome our soldiers home, our thoughts also turn to the over 1 million Kosovars who are unable to go home because of the policies of the regime in Belgrade," Clinton said in his statement. "Today we reaffirm our resolve to persevere until they too can return--with security and self-government."

"We are not only not going to stop the bombing, we're going to intensify the bombing," said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press." ". . . We're prepared to wage this campaign for some months to come."

Cohen also said it was "highly unlikely" that Clinton, who is planning to travel to Europe this week, will agree to any meeting with the Yugoslav president.

Officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels were equally firm, saying that Milosevic would wrest no advantage from handing over the three GIs.

"We're happy that those servicemen are released, but is there going to be a reward to Milosevic for doing that? Clearly no," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told reporters at alliance headquarters. "We're not going to give him any kind of ray of light into thinking he can wiggle out, that he can escape, rather like Houdini."

Instead, said NATO officials, Milosevic must meet the conditions laid down at February's abortive negotiations in Rambouillet, France, including allowing foreign soldiers to protect the ethnic Albanians remaining in Kosovo--a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia--and to guarantee the safe return of the hundreds of thousands who have fled or been expelled since March.

In other developments Sunday related to Operation Allied Force:

* NATO began a 40th night of airstrikes on Yugoslavia. Among other things, the alliance bombed a power plant near Belgrade, plunging the capital and much of the country into darkness in the widest blackout of the conflict. By early today, there were reports that some power had been restored.

* Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin phoned Clinton and then dispatched his Balkans envoy to Washington to deliver a personal message. The visit will be the first to the U.S. capital by former Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin since Yeltsin deputized him April 14 to mediate the conflict, which Russia vehemently opposes.

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