Colonel Gardner: Okay. I'm Colonel Gardner, I'm commanding officer of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. As you know, we received tasking yesterday to insert our forward command element and security element into the embassy. We did that last night at about 1730 Zulu time. At the same time, we pulled out 51 dependents, primarily women and children of embassy personnel, brought them back to the USS Nashville for subsequent transportation to Brindisi.
This morning, we received an execute order from the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs to conduct a general NEO on behalf of the ambassador. We took 11 transport helicopters and inserted a reinforced company into the embassy housing area just southeast of the embassy and commenced evacuating personnel.
All told, we picked up 357 American citizens and some third country nationals today for a grand total of 408 people. We brought them back to the USS Nassau where they were processed and then were transported subsequently to Brindisi, Italy about 60 miles to the west.
Shortly after noon today... While everyone in Albania seems to have a weapon or access to some heavy military hardware -- and there's a tremendous amount of indiscriminate firing as we've seen on all television newscasts -- there hasn't been any really directed at U.S. forces executing this operation. There were a couple of episodes today which there were exceptional in that regard. Shortly after noon, a heavy machine gun was firing on an escort helicopter as it was escorting some transports into one of the zones. Shortly thereafter, an individual was observed bringing a shoulder fired type weapon up to a ready position. When that was observed by an attack helicopter escort, he was fired upon, quickly dropped his weapon and ran away. And then the third episode that took place was a another heavy machine gun which fired on an attack helicopter, he was -- that weapon -- was subsequently destroyed. These events happened fairly close to each other. When they happened, we suspended operations to reassess our security posture and look at measures we could do to ensure that the evacuation could be conducted safely.
We've taken a look at that, we've assessed it and seen where we are. These incidents all took place in the same place. We've changed some of our procedures. We're set to continue operations tomorrow. And we're quite confident we can conduct those safely. We're expecting to take out upwards of 200 additional American citizens and third country nationals. And same procedure, bring them out here to the ship where they're processed and fed and taken care of, then transported to Brindisi.
So that's an overview. Now I'm available for your questions.
Q: Colonel, could you tell us how the operation tomorrow is going to differ from the operation today? Did you hear that?
A: Yes, I did. Well, we're going to take some precautions there, so I'm not going to go into -- in great detail. But we'll alter our routes. We're going to alter our times. We're confident that this was a very isolated area right there, which is dealt with. There have been some changes within the Albanian area. There's a new minister of interior, the police have all -- their pay has been quintupled, a curfew has been imposed. The ambassador feels that the security situation will be improved tomorrow. And we intend to start early and see how it goes.
Q: Colonel, you said that they've changed the routes. Will you still be air lifting the evacuees from the soccer field and has your reinforced Marine company set up a perimeter around the soccer field?
Hello, sir, can you hear us?
A: Okay, I'm back with you. Can you hear me?
Q: I don't know if you heard the last question. I got one more question, which is are you going to have more air cover tomorrow? Is that going to be part of the revised operation?
A: We have air cover available to us. We had it available today, we'll have it available again tomorrow. We have reconnaissance assets available to us. We have the whole force of the United States behind this operation and we're confident we can conduct it safely tomorrow.
I want to point that in the episode today, at no time were the transport helicopters themselves fired upon. These were the escort helicopters, which are flying patterns to protect them. There were never any injuries or any serious consequences such as that. But the risk was clearly there. We felt it prudent to go ahead and suspend operations and take a look at how we were doing business.
Q: Colonel, are you confident that you can complete the evacuation operation tomorrow?
A: That depends on how many people the ambassador wants us to take out. She's estimated that it would be about 200 people to take out tomorrow. But the infrastructure in Albania is quite fragile, and disruptive as you can imagine -- this anarchist situation. As the people trickle in to the assembly area, we're going to take them out. Particularly if they're American citizens or the ambassador tells us to do so in the cases of other nations. So we're here to stay for as long as it takes to take out the citizens and provide security for her as they reestablish (interruption)
Q: Just to clarify one point, I want to make sure that I understood correctly. You told us, Colonel, that no missile was fired at any helicopter.
A: That's correct. No missile was fired at any helicopter. A shoulder-launched device, such as a RPG or an SA-7 was taken from the lap of an individual and brought up to his shoulder. That was seen as a threatening act by the pilot and he was taken under fire.
Q: Was the perpetrator injured?
A: He was not. He was fired upon and he dropped his weapon and ran away.
Q: I'm sorry, could you just clarify again what you're going to do tomorrow to make sure that this risk isn't too great?
A: Well, we're altering the routes that we're flying in on. Now that we've been in there today and we're more familiar with the area, we've got reconnaissance assets up there to ascertain exactly where so we can adjust our routes accordingly. We're counting on an improved security posture in there. We're taking a look at our assets that we are bringing to bear in terms of air cover and the routes and altitudes that we're flying.
Q: Any more troops on the ground?
A: No, we have sufficient troops on the ground, certainly, to take care of this area in there. It's quite secure with the reinforced company we have on the ground.
Q: Was the idea of night flying considered and then rejected?
A: The deck of the operation, the initial insertion of the forward command element, the initial reinforcement was done at night. There are visibility problems in terms of fog that seems to settle in this area at night. There are numerous wires. They seem to paint the wires of transmission poles in this area brown to blend in with the terrain, quite difficult to pick up. It's a risk assessment as to getting in there. There's quite a bit of tracer fire. The first night we were out there... When you think that a tracer has three or four bullets between each tracer round, it's quite disconcerting to see that out there. The firing is almost continuous, especially in the evening, and the night as the people are doing their celebrations.
Q: Colonel, did the attacks on the Cobra gun ships occur far away from the point at which those people who were evacuated were lifted off or was it nearby? In other words, when you say you're going to alter routes, does that mean that these -- the risk, the potential is out away from the embassy or is it close by?
A: Well it's a couple of miles south, that's where we encountered the problem today.
Q: South of the pick up point?
A: That's correct.
Q: And were all -- the two machine guns and the SAM-7 there two miles south or were they far apart or how was that?
A: No, they were in the same area. It was an isolated area there, the same hilltop there to the south. That's one of the reasons we feel good about the situation there because that installation was destroyed. And we didn't really take any fire or notice any activity in there. We also noticed that we took a robust posture against these assets, the people would scurry for cover, they actually would come out and put covers over the guns demonstrating that they were not interested in taking us on.
Q: Could you just clarify again, if there are about 200 left to evacuate, is that something you could do in a day?
A: It is -- we feel it is -- it could be something we could do in a day. We're going to do it at the best time and according the circumstances.
Q: But in theory, this operation could be almost over by tomorrow.
A: If there are, in fact, 200 left to go. There were some initial estimates of over 2,000 to be taken out. If you figure that we've already taken out 408 total, the ambassador said estimated 200 left there. We're not really sure. It's up to her to say when the operation is over.
Q: Do you have any injuries or mishaps along the way?
A: We have not. There was one South African woman who was wounded outside of the American embassy and came up. We evacuated her this afternoon. It was -- she was ambulatory, it was a relatively minor wound. She was treated on the spot, brought to the ship and treated more intensely and then taken on to Brindisi. But that's the only injury that's occurred to any evacuees.
Q: Colonel, she was shot? Bullet wound?
A: Yes, she was shot in the shoulder. She showed up at the gate of the housing area there with a bullet wound in her shoulder.
Q: Colonel, has the U.S. Embassy come under any fire that's required the Marines to defend their positions?
A: Negative. That has not occurred. The housing area where we're mainly operating out of, is about a half-a-mile south of the embassy compound. This is where the Marines are concentrated. This is where the embassy is now doing its business. The embassy compound itself, we're also securing, but the main business is down in the housing area.
Q: Colonel, do you believe that the people who fired on the helicopters were able to discriminate or to know the difference between the attack helicopters and the transport helicopters that they -- that it was purposeful or do you think they would have fired on the transport helicopters?
A: Well the tactics often used by attack helicopters is holding in attack positions, they're pretty much in a single area, they're circling in a confined area. The transports are more of an area-type coverage. Transports are moving in and out using terrain following techniques while they're getting in and out of the zone because they're normally more vulnerable. I just think the firing here, this particular individual needs this one hilltop up here -- where all these episodes emanated from. I don't know really what his motivation was, but he was just shooting at the helicopter there.
Q: Were both the shootings in the same place, both machine gun shootings, were they both from the same position or were they from different places?
A: It was from basically the same position. There's some hilltops there to the south. We think it was about a 14.5 millimeter machine gun that was fired. Then on the next hill over was were this incident was noted with the shoulder-fired weapon. And then that same 14.5 millimeter opened up and he was taken out.
Q: So it was the same gun that shot twice and the second time it shot, it was taken out. Is that correct?
A: That's correct.
Q: And there were only two incidents. There was no missile fire, just the one thing you talked about, the guy taking the --
A: That's correct. No missile fired, but a missile launch type device such as a RPG or SA-7 device was brought up to the shoulder, this was in the proximity there. And of course, our rules of engagement allow us -- the right of self defense.
Q: When you say the gun encasement was taken out, does that mean that the people who were operating the gun were injured or killed or do you know?
A: No, as in both cases, as soon as we turned to return fire, these people run. They do not to take us on. We went ahead and destroyed the machine gun with the 20 millimeter machine gun of the Cobra.
Q: And they fired at two different helicopters, that one gun?
A: Yes. There were two different Cobras involved. They fired at the lead helicopter and then the wingman helicopter took it out.
Q: Thank you, Colonel.