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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clinton Lauds Troops, Laments Loss

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- With an F-117 stealth fighter and two F-16s parked nearby, President Bill Clinton on Wednesday rallied U.S. military personnel entering week seven of a NATO air assault on Yugoslavia.

Clinton's visit, which was met by the sobering news that two crew members of a U.S. Apache helicopter were killed during a training exercise, came just days after three American prisoners of war were freed. Defense Secretary William Cohen said the United States is prepared to release two captured Yugoslav soldiers.

"I would expect that within a relatively short period of time we could see their release" - but not as a goodwill gesture to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Cohen told reporters after Clinton's four hours of military briefings at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

Clinton, Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed military personnel and their families at this base in southwestern Germany.

Their trip to meet with servicemen and refugees of Kosovo came as the allied campaign in Yugoslavia had suffered its first U.S. losses in the Apache crash during a training exercise in northeastern Albania.

"Today, we grieve with their families and pray for them," Clinton said.

The helicopter crashed during a nighttime training mission and exploded in a fireball early Wednesday, killing two crewmen. It was the second Apache destroyed in a crash since the 24 specially equipped anti-tank helicopters were deployed in Albania two weeks ago.

The cause of Wednesday's crash was under investigation, but the Pentagon said there were no indications of hostile fire though the flight was near the borders with Macedonia and Yugoslavia.

Lieutenant Colonel Garrie Dornan, a spokesman for the U.S. task force that includes the Apaches, said the helicopter crashed in remote, rugged, mountainous terrain at 1:30 a.m. about 74 kilometers northeast of Tirana's airport.

Dornan said the two aviators were dead when the first rescue team arrived within 15 minutes. The Army withheld the crewmen's names pending notification of next of kin.

Major Toni Kemper at the U.S. European command in Stuttgart said the aviators' bodies would be flown through Ramstein Air Base, but it was not clear when that would take place.

Surveying the airplane hangar overflowing with members of the armed forces dressed in camouflage uniforms, and their children, Clinton reiterated that the NATO mission in Kosovo is to defeat ethnic hatred and intolerance.

"I know this is hard. I know too many of these pilots are flying long hours with too little rest. I know the stress and anxiety must be unbearable," he said.

"But next time you are in a meeting of American service personnel, look around at your differences, at your racial differences ... the differences of religious faith and thank God that you live in a society that honors that."

He thanked American personnel for having helped end the war in Bosnia.

"And I'm sorry you have to do it all over again," he said.

American armed forces are fighting to prevent world war in the future, Clinton said. "If we don't want your successors to have to come to this continent and fight another bitter war, then we must stand in Kosovo for the elemental principles of the common humanity of every breathing, living person in this continent."

In a press briefing after Clinton met with NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana and allied commanders, General Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme allied commander, said warplanes intensified strikes on Milosevic's ground forces. Over the past 48 hours, NATO hit 10 armored concentrations, 11 artillery sites, three command posts and 13 groups of trucks.

Serbian forces in Kosovo no longer have the ability to conduct "ethnic cleansing," Clark said. "When they're not in hiding, they're busy repairing what we damaged."

Spangdahlem is home to the 52nd U.S. Air Force Fighter Wing, whose F-16s, A-10s and F-117 "Nighthawk" stealth fighters are flying NATO bombing raids over Yugoslavia.

Clinton also met with the three U.S. POWs freed over the weekend by Milosevic in response to an appeal by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights leader.

"I don't believe Mr. Milosevic has made any goodwill overture to us," Cohen said. "He acts in accordance with what he thinks would serve his interests and no amount of gestures on his part can in any way obscure or mask ... the stench of evil that is emanating from the killing fields in Kosovo," Cohen said.

Clinton's meeting with Solana focused mostly on plans for an eventual NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

Clark, who is weighing how NATO should enforce U.S. and European Union embargoes designed to cut off Milosevic's oil supply, said he believed the bans could be backed up with force. The French have questioned the legality of searching ships at sea.

The main sticking point in diplomatic efforts to end the Kosovo crisis concerns what kind of peacekeeping force would protect returning ethnic Albanian refugees.

Milosevic has offered to accept a small UN force and insisted that some 11,000 Serbian troops remain in Kosovo. NATO has demanded the withdrawal of all Serbian forces.

Clinton rejected Milosevic's suggestion that a peacekeeping force exclude NATO troops.

"I wouldn't go back home without the United States and NATO, without our allies being involved in it," Clinton said aboard Air Force One. "Not after what they've been through."