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

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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.

* British Prime Minister Tony Blair will visit the region today to underline Britain's support for Serbia's neighbors and the tens of thousands of refugees who have been expelled from Kosovo, officials said in London. Blair will reportedly visit Macedonia and Romania.

* A total of 23,000 refugees fleeing a Serbian sweep of Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city, had crossed into Albania at the Morine border post since Thursday, U.N. officials said. It was the largest influx in three weeks. Albanian President Rexhep Mejdani said his country, Europe's poorest, needs financial help to deal with the rising tide. Each refugee costs Albania $4 a day to house and feed, Mejdani said--and Albania has been flooded with more than 360,000 Kosovo Albanians since late March.

* In Macedonia, the other main Balkan haven for the fleeing ethnic Albanians, about 5,000 arrived, according to Paula Ghedini, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The new arrivals reported that as many as 40,000 people were trying to leave Kosovo but were trapped by Serbian security forces.

* NATO officials said they were investigating why a U.S. Air Force F-16 developed engine failure and crashed in northwestern Serbia while returning from a mission early Sunday. The pilot of the jet fighter, the alliance's second aircraft lost in action since the strikes on Yugoslavia began March 24, was rescued within two hours, NATO officials said.

* Another U.S. plane, a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier, lost power and crashed into the Adriatic on Saturday about 25 miles east of Brindisi, Italy, while on a training exercise, NATO and U.S. officials disclosed. The pilot ejected safely.

In Brussels, NATO officials also endeavored to explain how yet another of the alliance's bombing sorties went terribly awry--an attack Saturday on a bridge in Kosovo that blew apart a bus, killing at least 39 people. Serbian television put the death toll at 60.

The bridge "was a legitimate military target on a key north-south resupply route for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia military and special police," NATO military spokesman Col. Konrad Freytag said. Freytag, an officer in the German air force, said the bus crossed onto the span after, and not before, a NATO aircraft dropped a bomb on it.

Focused on the point where he was aiming, the pilot didn't see the bus, Freytag said.

"Never, never, never would a pilot of the alliance drop a bomb if he thought there was a risk of civilian wounded or dead, believe me," Shea added.

On Sunday morning, a NATO airstrike at the heart of Kosovska Mitrovica in northern Kosovo not only destroyed a police office building and damaged several nearby apartments but also injured at least 30 people. The bombing at 8:40 a.m. collapsed the top floor of the three-story police administration building and flattened the center section of the complex, which was as long as a city block.

Residents of the four- and five-story apartment buildings that surround the police offices were injured by the heavy blasts, which tore large pieces out of walls and brought rubble raining down on residents.

Five civilians working in the police complex were also injured, according to police.

Meanwhile Sunday, outside Skopje, Macedonia, fellow soldiers were elated to learn that Stone, Ramirez and Gonzales had been released.

At Camp Able Sentry, where the three were based before their capture, one of Ramirez's best friends, Sgt. William Martinez, ran around the barracks, waking up soldiers who were still sleeping.

"It's a happy day, man, a happy day," said Martinez, a Watts native who bonded with Ramirez after the two men shared memories of King Taco, a renowned after-hours taco stand in East L.A.

"We were all shouting. It was the biggest thing. This is as good as it gets," said Staff Sgt. Douglas Wolff of Riverside, who was on patrol three miles away on the same day the men were taken prisoner.

In Germany, the three soldiers said that on the night before their release, they had been too excited to sleep.

"We were treated very well," Ramirez said. But he and the two others said their isolation was depressing and difficult. Stone had said earlier that he made an American flag out of toilet paper and kept it in his pocket during his captivity.

Shortly after their arrival at Ramstein, the three men were escorted to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, about five miles away, where they were to be evaluated overnight. Col. Mack Blanton, a doctor at the medical center, gave only cursory answers to reporters' questions. He said the three had lost some weight and that they had some minor injuries such as scarring from handcuffs.

In Baldwin Park, Vivian Ramirez, Andrew's mother, emerged from her home just after noon, saying a short prayer with loved ones for a safe journey before departing for her reunion with her son.

Stone's wife, Tricia, and their 4-year-old son, Ryan, were also making the journey to Ramstein, as were Gonzales' parents, Gilbert and Rosie.

Although she couldn't stop smiling, Ramirez managed to utter only a few words to the scores of reporters and camera operators stationed outside her home.

"I can't describe how I'm feeling," she said. "I'm feeling nervous, excited. . . . I'm going to hold him, hug him, squeeze him."

Rubin reported from Ramstein and Dahlburg from Brussels. Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Jim Mann in Washington, Richard Boudreaux in Belgrade, Maura Reynolds in Moscow, Paul Watson in Kosovska Mitrovica, Elizabeth Shogren in Skopje, T. Christian Miller at Camp Able Sentry, Julie Ha in Los Angeles and Claudia Kolker in New York, as well as special correspondent Christian Retzlaff in Ramstein.

EMOTIONAL RESCUE

L.A. delegate tells of meeting with Yugoslav leader to seek release of U.S. soldiers. A11

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