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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

North Korea Urged To Free U.S. Aviator

WASHINGTON -- The White House promised Monday to "press very hard" for the release of an aviator downed in North Korea, but said the incident need not unsettle fragile diplomatic relations with the communist state.

North Korean officials told a U.S. congressman visiting Pyongyang that one pilot of a U.S. Army helicopter was killed and the other captured when the craft strayed into North Korean territory Saturday.

The death of Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon of Clarksville, Tennessee, the most serious U.S.-North Korean military incident since the 1970s, comes at a time of tentative steps toward normalization of relations and negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program.

"This tragic loss of life was unnecessary," President Bill Clinton said in a statement.

The president said the administration was urging the prompt return of Hilemon's body and the release of the second pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall of Brooksville, Florida.

The OH-58C helicopter was either shot down or made an emergency landing after straying five to seven kilometers north of the demilitarized zone in the eastern sector of the Korean border. U.S. officials have said the craft was unarmed and on a routine training mission.

Clinton avoided any public criticism of North Korea's handling of the matter. Pyongyang rejected a U.S. proposal Monday to begin talks at the Korean border on the return of the pilot. Officials at the border said "their leadership was too busy with the investigation" into the incident to hold talks on the issue, said Jim Coles, spokesman for the U.S. military in Seoul.

Coles said he was hopeful the repatriation could be arranged "within the next few days." He said: "I think it is in everyone's interest to try and resolve this as soon as possible." He added: "We will continue to talk to the Korean People's Army through a variety of avenues." They include Representative Bill Richardson, who was visiting Pyongyang when the helicopter went down and held talks with Foreign Minister Kim Yong-nam and other senior officials Sunday at the Panmunjom truce village. Richardson sought "immediate access" to the pilots and stressed that failure to return them "would have a serious impact on U.S.-North Korea relations."

Coles said it was too early to say what the helicopter was doing in North Korean territory or how it came down, but that it was possible snow had obscured landmarks in the mountainous border area. He said he could not confirm a report by South Korea's Yonhap news agency that quoted unnamed sources in South Korea as saying the dead pilot was cut down by North Korean fire while trying to take off after crash landing. (AP, Reuters)