[Also participating in this DOD News Briefing: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)]
Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.
I'd like to introduce Lieutenant General Peter Pace, who is the J-3 -- the member of the Joint Staff in charge of operations. He's going to give you a briefing on SILVER WAKE, the operation to remove American citizens from Albania, and then he'll answer your questions.
General Pace: Thanks very much, Ken.
I'd like to have the opportunity, if I could, to just give you a brief overview of the ongoing operations in Albania for Non- combatant Evacuation Operations [NEO], and at the end of that then take your questions.
As you know, this operation is being conducted by our forward deployed troops in Europe, and at sea in the Mediterranean. It's being commanded by the Joint Task Force Commander, Vice Admiral Steve Abbott, who is also the Commander of the 6th Fleet. He is working for General Joulwan, who you know is our U.S. Commander-in-Chief in Europe, and he has working for him both Captain Golden, who is the Amphibious Ready Group commander; and Colonel Gardner, who is the United States Marine Corps commander of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable, embarked aboard the ships in the Adriatic, right now.
As you know also, the forces that were involved initially were the three ships in the Amphibious Ready Group. Those three ships have just under 2,000 sailors on board, and just over 2,000 Marines. Yesterday, at about 12:30 [p.m.] EDT, a forward command element from the Marine Expeditionary Unit went in to the embassy to get hooked up with Ambassador Lino. He took a command element plus communicators and some security folks -- a team of about 25 -- went in to the embassy to assist her in planning the evacuation of American citizens and also third country nationals that she may designate for us to help evacuate.
The helicopters that took that team in yesterday were able to withdraw with them some 51 people last night, and they brought them out aboard ship last evening.
This morning at about 0400 -- about 4 a.m. EDT -- a Marine rifle company off the ships at sea went in and added security to the embassy compound, and also went into the housing area near the American embassy and set up a landing zone there.
If I could turn to the chart for a second, you see the distance here from Brindisi over to Tirana is about 95 nautical miles. The evacuees are being picked up at the embassy, which I'll show you in just a minute, being flown back aboard ship; being processed aboard the ship; and then being brought forward - - thanks to the very great cooperation of the Italian government -- being brought forward and being processed in Brindisi where our State Department will take over and move them back to the United States.
In the embassy compound itself: the embassy compound is about ten miles from the Tirana airport. The Marines went into the housing area about half a mile away, set up a perimeter there and have security there, and also have security here at the embassy itself.
Today, as I said, at about 4 a.m. East Coast time they went in and began withdrawing more evacuees. The total evacuated today, was 357, added to the 51 who came out last night.
About three hours into the operation they received some ground fire. One of the Cobra gunship helicopters received ground fire from what was believed to be a 14.5mm gun. The pilot saw where it was being fired from and was able to return fire with his on-board 20mm cannon. The crowd near that gun dispersed, and that helicopter continued with its mission.
Within the hour of that happening, another event took place, a shoulder-fired missile was fired at another Cobra gunship. That pilot also saw where it was fired from and again returned fire. When that group dispersed, he went on about continuing his mission.
As a result of those two firings, though, Admiral Abbott reassessed the security situation. He had about 50 U.S. citizens who were gathered at the embassy compound -- who had yet to be evacuated. But his assessment at the time was that inside the U.S. Marine perimeter, they were safer than to take them up in the helicopters until he could ascertain exactly what the threat was to his force.
That is ongoing now. There's been a temporary suspension of evacuation operations until Admiral Abbott, in consultation with General Joulwan, can determine the right force mix to go in and safely evacuate American citizens.
Q: How many rounds fired from the 14.5?
A: I do not know that. There were several bursts of tracer fire. I don't know how many exactly.
Q: Did they hit?
Q: This is an anti-aircraft gun?
A: An anti-aircraft gun, that's correct.
Q: Do you believe the evacuation will be able to continue by air, or is there discussion and thought being given to a land evacuation?
A: They are looking at the options again. There are multiple ways to do that. You could, in fact, do it by sea -- either across the beaches or into one of the ports. You could open up the airfield and work fixed-wing aircraft from the airfield, or you could continue with helicopter evacuation operations. That will be a decision that Admiral Abbott and his staff will make in consultation with General Joulwan. When he's determined that he has decided on his best, safest course of action, then he will execute that.
Q: Is there any time pressure on him to make that decision quickly?
A: No, there's no time pressure on him. Right now, the American citizens who are gathered at the embassy are very safely protected by the Marine rifle company that's there. The Ambassador is actively pursuing and trying to get the word out to other American citizens in the country to find out A, where they are; B, do they want to be evacuated; and can they get to the embassy or do they need to be picked up elsewhere.
Q: Do you see this as organized hostility against Americans? Is there an organized ...
A: There's no indication of that. As you've seen on your own reporting, on television and in the news, there's folks out there who have gotten a weapon and are firing the things in the air. It's just that there is no control on the ground. People are firing weapons indiscriminately and in that kind of environment, you want to make sure that the way you evacuate your people is as safe as possible. That's what the Admiral's looking at.
Q: Are you getting numbers of how many Americans want to be evacuated?
A: There's a total population of Americans of about 1,800 who could be evacuated. The initial indications we have from the embassy were that about half of those -- some 900, perhaps 1,000 -- would want to be evacuated. Of that number, about half have already been evacuated. As I said, at the time that we temporarily suspended evacuation from the embassy compound there were 50 Americans or so who were awaiting a lift.
Q: Since we're just probably a couple hours away from darkness now in Tirana, as a practical matter, are there going to be any more evacuation operations today?
A: That, again, will be a decision of the commander on the ground. There are pluses and minuses to that. If you, in fact, do a nighttime operation there's a lot of concealment that goes along with that, so you could, in fact, conduct an operation without being seen by a lot of folks on the ground. On the other hand, although it's a very safe operation, machines do fail, and if you have a plane or a helicopter load of folks who are not used to helicopter operations, if that helicopter were to crash in the water at night, that would make things very difficult for their own survival and for rescue operations.
So, the commander's going to balance the threat on the ground, the threat in the air, and make a decision.
Q: All of those options you described: the port, the airfield, or going on with the helo, they all seem to imply putting more Marines ashore to expand the perimeter so that it's a safer area to operate. Whatever we do here, are we likely to see more U.S. Marines ashore?
A: I think what you're going to see is whatever number of Marines you need ashore and whatever other kind of U.S. forces you need to do this thing right. General Joulwan has tremendous capabilities forward deployed in Europe; Admiral Abbott has very significant forces already assigned to him. You have one Marine rifle company ashore right now. There are three more that could go ashore. There's 170, out of the 2,200 Marines who are available, ashore right now; so, there's plenty of firepower to include gunships and "jump-jet" Harrier aircraft aboard the ships right now that could be employed if necessary. So, that's a decision that the Admiral and the staff are going through right now. What's the right mix? But if he needs more, he has it at his disposal right now.
Q: Have the Marines been challenged in any way? Have they been fired on?
A: Other than the two firings on the helicopters, none reported.
Q: And the helicopters that were fired on were not carrying evacuees?
A: That's correct. These were the "slick" version gunships that are, in fact, armed specifically for aerial artillery.
Q: Do the circumstances suggest why the two helicopters were fired on?
A: No, they don't.
Q: A bunch of cowboys firing away, or ...
A: Although, what I've seen on TV, it's hard to tell why they're firing, but there's no indication about why.
Q: Are there thoughts about bringing the TEDDY ROOSEVELT a little closer in?
A: That is an option that is available to the commanders, but as of this discussion, that is just one of the many things that I'm sure they are looking at, mix and match options. There are sufficient forces assigned to the force right now to get this job done.
Q: General, you said that a crowd was dispersed in the first instance when the Cobra returned fire. Can you describe what was on the ground? What kind of a crowd was it? Are these civilians manning these guns, crowding around these guns?
A: I wasn't there, so I'm giving you second-hand reporting. What we have from the reports that have been submitted is that they were people manning the guns, aiming and firing those guns at our crews. Whether they were wearing civilian clothes or khakis doesn't make any difference. If you're being fired at, you're being threatened. If you're being threatened, you're going to do something about it. Our crews did the right thing. They were threatened, and they did something about it.
Q: Were they in civilian clothes, though?
A: I don't know.
Q: What time of day was this?
A: It was between 0645 and 0730, 0745 our time, this morning. Add seven hours to that for local time.
Q: Albanian casualties?
A: None that we know of.
Q: How are you providing security for Americans who are not close to the embassy who may want to leave, to get there safely?
A: Part of the problem is we're not sure. Because of the lack of secure telephone communications, and lack of opportunity to speak with them by radio, we don't know exactly where all the American citizens are. In fact, this kind of broadcast may very well help us, if this word can get out, if the American citizens are hearing us, if they could somehow contact the American embassy, let Ambassador Lino know where they are and what they need so we can, in fact, help them.
Q: General, there was a report off of one of the ships that the surface-to-air missile was seen, but not fired. It seemed to be in conflict with what we were getting from officials here. You sound quite solid on the fact that it was fired, at least from the reports that you have.
A: The report that we have is that the pilot and the co- pilot saw a man- portable missile fired, and that they returned fire.
Q: How close did it come?
A: I do not know.
Q: What are the orders for the rifle company and for the pilots of the choppers? Their orders to return fire, they're not to ask anybody?
A: Standing rules of engagement for U.S. forces anywhere in the world is if you are threatened, you have the absolute authority to take whatever measures are necessary, to include lethal force, to protect yourself. It is standard operating procedure that if you threaten a U.S. soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine, you are going to get a response.
Q: General, normally when American forces go into a country they are in contact with the authorities in that country. Are there any authorities in that country, in your view? And are you in contact with them?
A: Our forces are in contact with Ambassador Lino and her staff. She then has the responsibility and the authority to do the inter-government work. We are working with the Ambassador, and she's working beyond that.
Q: So there's no military-to-military contact?
A: Between U.S. military and Albanian forces of some kind? Correct.
Q: Is this situation going beyond the borders of Albania? Is there any conflicts or civil unrest in Serbia, Montenegro? Do you see any danger of it spreading at present?
A: Right now our mission is to go into Tirana and into Albania and to evacuate American citizens and third country nationals that our Ambassador tells us should be evacuated. That is what we're doing right now. When that mission is complete, we will extract the force and wait for a new mission.
Q: Secretary Cohen this morning mentioned the concern about refugee flows and so forth -- cross-border refugee flows -- being caused by the unrest. Are you seeing any of that, your intelligence people seeing any kind of mass refugee movement?
A: I have not heard any reports on that. But again, of course, Secretary Cohen's scope of responsibility is greater than mine. I'm the operations guy. I'm looking at today's job and doing it right.
Q: Are you making any preparations for any broader involvement, the possibility of any broader involvement by the U.S. military?
A: We're not doing any ... The J-3 shop, operations, are not doing any preparations for that.
Q: Can you share with us anything you may know about the Albanian military situation? Is there any military left?
A: I have no specific knowledge on that other than what I've observed in your press reports. It appears that they have disintegrated, but I am off-base talking about intelligence issues, and they are not impacting ...
Q: I didn't know if this was something that you might have heard while you're doing this planning. If it all goes together.
A: What we are doing is we are taking the fact that there are many, many armed citizens in Albania, and they could be a threat to the force on the ground. So, we are working with that as a threat to our force, regardless of whether they are part of a particular armed force or not.
Q: Can I just ask about the shoulder-launched missile? Would I be right in presuming that it was that firing that caused the greatest concern and really caused the Admiral to suspend operations? What kind of a shoulder-launched missile was it? Heat-seeking? And, how much of a threat are those to helicopter operations, day or night?
A: First of all, it was a combination of the two. I think the first one, whether it had been a missile or a machine gun, might have been considered to be an isolated incident. But when you have two, regardless of whether they're missiles or anti- aircraft guns of some kind, that tells you you've got an environment now that you really have to be concerned about, more than you might have been before. Whether or not they are heat- seeking missiles doesn't make any difference. The fact is, I do not know what type of missile was fired, we do know that the pilots report it was some kind of a man-packed weapon that was fired at them, a missile type, the type exactly, I do not know. We'll debrief the pilots. We'll see if we can get some more information on that.
Q: Where else in Albania are you concerned about? Are there any other parts or just the capital?
A: You've got about 60 percent of the American citizens, who are in Albania, at the capital. Our mission right now is to go to the capital and to gather up those who want to be evacuated and to get them out of the country. As other Americans report in to the Ambassador and the situation on the ground for them develops, we'll then have a situation between the State Department and DoD, make a decision about what to do next.
Q: The Marine force was there in the area as part of the greater Bosnia mission? Is that what ...
A: No, as a matter of fact what you have is your Marine force aboard the amphibious shipping that is in the Mediterranean on routine, forward deployed operations. This is what you as a taxpayer have been paying for, and this force is there when you need it to do these kinds of things for American citizens.
Press: Thank you, sir.