Freed US POWs Welcomed in Germany
RAMSTEIN, Germany (AP) _ Three U.S. soldiers released by Yugoslav authorities stepped off a plane at a military base in Germany on Sunday to salutes from their Army buddies and wild cheers from a flag-waving crowd.
Their arrival after more than a month in captivity capped an emotional, daylong journey by land and air from Yugoslavia’s capital.
``Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last,″ they chanted as they walked across the Yugoslav border into Croatia hand-in-hand with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who arranged their release in Belgrade hours earlier.
There were no signs that the soldiers’ release would prompt a new diplomatic initiative or a halt in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
NATO kept up intense attacks Sunday on Kosovo and elsewhere in Yugoslavia, making more than 600 sorties over a 24-hour period. The alliance also acknowledged that it was responsible for the strike on a bus north of the Kosovo capital, Pristina, on Saturday that Yugoslav officials said killed 47 people.
The freed soldiers, dressed in Army fatigues, were exuberant and appeared healthy, standing tall and walking briskly when they left Yugoslavia. But they still showed signs of the cuts and bruises they suffered when captured on a patrol mission along the Macedonia-Yugoslav border on March 31.
They told journalists that they were treated humanely but they were glad to be out.
``It’s a great relief to be free,″ Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Mich., said during the stop at the Croatian border town of Bajakovo. He said his scars and bruises came from his capture and after that, ``the maltreatment stopped.″
``We were treated very well,″ Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles, added later before boarding the plane to Germany. ``We’re doing good, we’re healthy. As you can see we’re very happy. Mostly happy.″
On the night before their release, the soldiers said, they were too excited to sleep.
A nine-man color guard with six flags and a 27-man honor platoon, dressed in full combat gear, from the soldiers’ own division greeted their C-9 military plane as it arrived at Ramstein Air Base from Zagreb, Croatia. As the soldiers stepped out, a jubilant roar went up from the 400 Army personnel and their families who had waited for hours on the tarmac with U.S. flags and big ``Welcome Home″ signs.
``It does not get any better than this!!!″ read one huge banner hung with yellow ribbons from an aircraft stairway ramp. ``God bless America″ read another.
The three, carrying American flags folded under their arms, walked onto the tarmac, saluted the honor guard, then immediately boarded two UH-60 medical evacuation helicopters and were flown to the nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military hospital, for medical tests.
They arrived a few minutes later, waving and offering a thumbs-up to well-wishers before disappearing inside. Dr. Mack Blanton of the U.S. Army later told reporters that an initial evaluation showed the soldiers were ``reasonably healthy″ although they had some minor injuries that were still being evaluated.
He said they expected the soldiers to remain at the hospital for two to three days.
Jackson, who accompanied them out of Yugoslavia, said he would meet with President Clinton as early as Monday to deliver a letter from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic with proposals to end the five-week NATO air campaign and resolve the crisis over Kosovo, including a face-to-face meeting.
At Ramstein, the civil rights leader, looking tired, said Milosevic had made a gesture toward a diplomatic solution, and urged Clinton to consider the offer. ``Diplomacy deserves reciprocity,″ he said. ``Let’s seize the opportunity.″
In Washington, Clinton expressed his gratitude to Jackson and said he was pleased at the soldiers’ release. ``All of America is anticipating their safe return.″
Clinton did not immediately comment on the proposal to meet with Milosevic and gave no indication that he was willing to cede anything to the Yugoslav leader.
``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 a White House statement.
``Today we reaffirm our resolve to persevere until they, too, can return _ with security and self-government,″ Clinton said.
The soldiers themselves were not expected to meet with reporters in Germany until after their checkups and debriefing.
Stone, Ramirez, and Spec. Steven Gonzales, 22, of Huntsville, Texas, had left the Army’s 1st Infantry division base in Schweinfurt, about 50 miles southwest of Frankfurt, in March for Macedonia.
They were taken captive while patrolling the Yugoslav-Macedonia border as part of a peacekeeping mission, seven days after NATO launched its bombing campaign in Yugoslavia.
The release came early Sunday morning after an unusually quiet night in the allied bombing campaign against the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, although there were strikes throughout the rest of Yugoslavia. Jackson had called for NATO to respond to Milosevic’s gesture of releasing the soldiers by calling for a pause in the bombardments.
The soldiers stood by solemnly with their hands behind their backs while a brief signing ceremony formally marking the transfer was held in a conference room in the Yugoslav army press center in Belgrade.
Each then made tearful calls to their parents on a cellular phone.
Their relatives were also expected to fly to Ramstein from the United States for reunions in the next day or two.