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DoD News Briefing, Wednesday, June 23, 1999 - 2:00 p.m.

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
June 23, 1999 2:00 PM EDT

Also Participating: Brigadier General John Craddock, Task Force Falcon

Mr. Bacon: We've got a group of about 20 people here, and my understanding is you'll start with an operational update and then take some questions. We'll go on 20, 30 minutes, depending on how long the questions go.

Thanks again for doing this.

General Craddock: Sure thing.

Let me take a few minutes then up front and give you a quick overview of our status and where we're focused and what we're working on.

Right now, we've got about 4,500 servicemen in Kosovo working every day on the ground up here or in the air. The next battalion to close will be a battalion out of the 1st Infantry Division, a mechanized infantry battalion. They are partly in now. The headquarters is here, two companies. They will fully close on the 27th of June. They are already employed with the elements that are here conducting patrolling and actions and operations in our area.

After that the Polish battalion -- it's a Polish parachute battalion -- will be coming in. That multinational battalion will be assigned to our area. They should be arriving in Macedonia starting on the 27th of June, and they will fully close here into our area by 4 July.

Finally, the last U.S. battalion -- a tank battalion, again from Germany, the 1st Infantry Division -- will come in right after the Polish battalion and will conduct a tactical turnover with the 26th MEU. That action then should be complete by mid-July. Along with that final battalion will be all the associated combat support, combat service support units. We will swap out some aviation assets, some artillery assets. Then by mid-, the second or third week of July, we will have Task Force Falcon set in the U.S. area of operation.

Currently, we are doing a heavy presence patrol throughout our area of operations. By the very nature of this operation, it is focused on people. It's focused on putting soldiers and Marines in the towns and the villages throughout the area, establishing a strong presence in order to provide a calming effect, in order to provide a venue for those folks who are either scared, have problems, are not sure of what their situation is. Many have come to us with concerns about their houses are either booby-trapped, or there's mines on their property. What we are doing by that presence, then, is building confidence in all the parties here, regardless of who.

Again, the key here is fair, impartial, even-handed treatment. We don't discriminate among one group or the other. It's a tough challenge. These soldiers are doing a superb job every day. It just amazes me to see what they're able to do from the challenge of someone who wants to try to prevail in a tense, delicate situation, to a few hours later turning around and being able to be very compassionate in a situation where children need medical attention or someone needs to get to a hospital quickly or something like that. So I'll tell you, they are performing superbly and it's a sight to behold.

Now what are some of the challenges? Well, we've got a lot of them. The mines. We've found more and more minefields as we continue to expand throughout our area. When we first got here, we were on the primary roads and avenues, routes throughout our area. Now we're expanding out, and we're going to a lot of smaller villages, the little bergs, the out-of-the-way places. The residents come tell us about minefields. We found them. We've found buried anti-personnel mines with trip wires. We've found mines that appear to have been thrown out as forces withdrew towards Serbia along roadsides that are not marked on maps provided by the Serb forces.

We have the maps now. They are very detailed, and there are lots and lots of mines near the border areas with Macedonia. So we've got that, and we're updating those every day. Every day that map changes because of what we find.

We're also beginning now to find booby-trapped areas in some of the towns where forces were garrisoned. We are finding that they left and left ordnance. They left weapons. They left ammunition, and much of that has been booby-trapped, so we're having to be very careful there.

Also we now have seen the first -- with residents telling us about -- unexploded NATO ordnance, the cluster bomb units. We are beginning to see different places throughout the area, which is extremely dangerous, and which must be dealt with in place as opposed to being able to be moved and then detonated later.

That now has increased the level of awareness and the level of intensity of all of our soldiers as they go about their business out there in the towns and villages and the countryside.

I would say the next challenge is a rogue element that either refuses or maybe does not know, or refuses to acknowledge the fact that agreements have been made, and that's for both sides. We still continue to find illegal checkpoints that we have to challenge. We have to disarm those people that are doing those checkpoints, and we have to tear it down.

We still continue to find those who refuse to follow the instructions that are in the agreements, so we continually over this last few days have had to ensure that we one, inform all of what they've agreed to do, and then two, enforce that.

We expected that. We expected that after the agreement -- the undertaking was signed with the UCK -- that there would be some time before that information got down to the lower ranks -- all the soldiers of the UCK. And we expected that there would be some percentage, some number, who even though they were informed, refused to comply. So we've expected an increase, a rising trend in incidents, and I think that's what we're experiencing now.

It is not cause for concern, but we watch it very closely to see that it does not continue up in an alarming fashion.

I would tell you that in the last 48 hours for the first time we have become the target of violent acts. Our soldiers were fired upon for the first time two nights ago. No one was injured. No one was hurt. We captured two of the people who perpetrated that. They are in detention now.

This afternoon an incident -- it's ongoing now -- occurred south of the town of Gnjilane where a Marine checkpoint was fired upon. The Marines returned fire. Two of the assailants were killed. The rest have barricaded in a building. That incident's ongoing. Right now, we've got folks there trying to talk the force, whoever has done the shooting, out of the building and surrender. So that one is in progress at this time. Again, no U.S. forces injured or hurt at this time.

Short-term priorities. We're going to continue the heavy force presence. I've got to do that in order to maintain that calming influence, that reassurance to all the people in the area here that we are here to maintain law and order. We are here to ensure a safe and stable environment. And we will provide whatever we have to do to ensure that that occurs.

With regard to what's changed, I would say now we are just beginning to see the appearance of some of the international organizations, the non-governmentals, the private volunteer organizations who are starting to come into the area. Their advance parties are here. They're meeting with us. We are having coordination meetings in several of the larger towns and villages to determine, to assess the level of civic functions that are occurring in these different towns, and it's different everywhere you go. Some towns have limited power throughout the day; others have problems with water, so it varies.

What we're doing now is getting an assessment of where we need to focus priorities, where the greatest need occurs, and then we'll start there and try to fix that and provide some level of existence, of subsistence immediately, and then move beyond that to try to restore civic functioning to what it was prior to this conflict.

I think that gives you a rundown of where we are. I'd say at this time let me stop, and I'll try to answer some questions.

Mr. Bacon: General, this is Ken Bacon. I wondered if you could just repeat again the location of the incident that's currently ongoing, and spell the name of the town.

General Craddock: Okay, let me get my notes here. The town is a small town and it is Zegra, Z-E-G-R-A. It is south of the larger town of Gnijlane, G-N-I-J-L-A-N-E. There are several ways to spell that, both a Serb spelling and a...

Mr. Bacon: Gnjilane is where the Marines have their headquarters, right?

General Craddock: Very close by, that's correct. Right. A few kilometers south of that is the town of Zegra. That's where there was a Marine checkpoint and where they were fired upon at about 6:00 o'clock our time, 1800 hours, and they developed the situation, again, returned fire, and now the last information I have -- and we're monitoring this closely -- is they're still, they have the complex or building surrounded where the assailants are, and they're trying to talk them into surrendering and come out. But they have plenty of force on hand, and we're just waiting for that to resolve itself.

Mr. Bacon: How many Marines are involved?

General Craddock: Well, it was part of an artillery battery, initially. I don't know the exact number. If it's a platoon, it's 20 or 30. That's about normal for a road checkpoint. We understand that there were two killed and maybe five to six more of the assailants that are holed up in the house. And reinforcements were sent; plus they have attack helicopters on the scene. So again, this should resolve itself rather quickly.

Mr. Bacon: One final question, are the assailants in the house Serbs or KLA?

General Craddock: We do not know at this time. We do not know if they're in uniform or in civilian clothes. We'll wait. Obviously, the officer in charge on the scene's got a lot more to work on right now and figure out than reporting whether they're in uniforms. As soon as we have that, we'll report that up higher.

Mr. Bacon: Great. Thanks.

Any questions from the press?

Q: Are they uniformed, non-uniformed? I understand the ones in the building you can't see, but [the] two were killed. Are they outside the building?

Mr. Bacon: Did you hear that, General? Were the --

General Craddock: Yes. I've asked the same question. I don't have an answer at this time, because I don't know where they are. They could be where it's not possible to get to them in the line of fire, so I don't have that information at this time. We're trying to find out now.

Q: Any Marines injured, General?

General Craddock: No. No U.S. forces were injured. No casualties.

Q: General, the prior incident you mentioned 48 hours ago when you said that the U.S. troops were fired on, you think you captured two of the assailants who are in custody. Do you know any more about that? Were those UCK or VJ?

General Craddock: The only thing I would say is that we observed from a distance at night time a couple of fires in the town [and] sent a platoon to investigate. They came into the town. They saw individuals firing weapons in the air. When the individuals saw the U.S. forces coming, they turned and fired at them. We returned fire. Later they captured three of the people that were in the town. One was not part of the group that caused the problem. The other two -- one was wearing a uniform shirt with no patches and the other was in civilian clothes. At this time there's been no claim as to what they're affiliated with. They did not claim affiliation one way or the other. We're still investigating to try to determine who they are.

Q: Can you tell us what town that was in, what U.S. forces were involved, and when exactly that occurred?

General Craddock: It was the night before last at about midnight, and it was the 2nd of the 505th Infantry out of the 82nd Airborne. It was a small village, probably not on any maps or any name that you would recognize. About five kilometers to the northeast of my current location at Camp Bondsteel.

Q: How often have you had incidents like that? How many have you had total?

General Craddock: Those are the only two incidents where U.S. forces have come under any type of fire that I'm aware of. We have been nearby where there's been shootings of residents, one on the other. We would assume it's either Serb against Albanian or vice-versa, but we have not had anything but those two incidents against U.S. forces.

Q: General, again, this incident began about 6:00 p.m. your time, which would be noon on the East Coast here, right?

General Craddock: Yes. Six hours difference.

Q: General, you talk of your priority being to establish a heavy people presence on the ground. What's your sense whether the 7,000 number that's been talked about is going to be adequate, given what you see now to be your needs on the ground?

General Craddock: I think it will be entirely adequate. That number combined with our multinational battalions -- I have a Greek battalion here now of over 500 soldiers; we'll have a Polish battalion who will be coming in; and the negotiations, the discussions are still ongoing with regard to the Russian contingent, so I think that will be entirely adequate to enable us to provide a presence where we need it.

You must remember that we have extraordinary mobility from a couple of perspectives. One is that with our Bradleys and our tanks, we can move very quickly, if we need a heavy deterrent effect. Also we have Apache helicopters. That is the one thing that regardless of where you go in this AOR, whoever you talk to will tell you they're glad to see Apaches flying. We've used those to patrol the border. We use those any time we need to get one, a show of force, or two, a deterrent effect, and then last the surveillance and reconnaissance because they have that gun camera in the nose. We can bring that back, and we have proof positive if someone's out there doing something or somewhere they should not be -- we can prove it with that videotape.

Q: General, I just wanted to ask you about the borders, especially the border with Serbia that you're responsible for maintaining. Are you able, do you have Marines there now? Are you able to keep the KLA from going up there and challenging the Serbians across their border?

General Craddock: Yes, we have a presence on the specified border crossings as designated by KFOR. I would tell you that most of the border crossings are mined by the Serbs. Where they left is where we have our checkpoints, and we're controlling that. And I know of no occasion, no incidents at all where UCK have tried to go up and intimidate anyone at the border. That has not been reported. I'm not aware of anything like that. We patrol that regularly, both by ground and air. But again, you must understand that that is a heavily mined area, so it is with great caution that we move in that area.

Q: General, you say there's a rising trend in challenges to the provisions of the agreement. Are you also seeing a rising trend in looting and interethnic violence?

General Craddock: A slight trend, yes. I would tell you that now the refugees are coming back. We see, again, the small towns, the villages that before when we first entered were almost empty are now filling up. The larger towns, there's a bustling activity on the streets and the people are coming back. The shops are starting to open up. The markets now are starting to fill with produce. And because of that, obviously, the more people that come back in, the more opportunity for that.

So we have seen recently more of a challenge. We've seen more violence one against the other. But again, it's our presence, I think, that is holding that down to a great extent. We just have to continue to focus on that, and then what we do is routinely meet -- I meet probably every other day with UCK leaders. We walk through the agreement. We walk through the undertaking, what it is they have to do. I did that today for several hours, to ensure they are aware, they understand, and that they acknowledge the fact that they have signed up to this, and this is theirs to accomplish.

It's one of these situations where we didn't make the rules -- they did. We're just here to make sure they follow them. So we're watching that closely to make sure that we establish the conditions for them to succeed and accomplish what they've agreed to do.

Q: When you intervene in incidents of violence or looting and you have to detain people, how do you detain them? For how long? There's, obviously, no civil/legal setup to deal with these incidents.

General Craddock: Good question. That's a tough one. We struggled with that initially when we first did the detention. We said, "how are we going to do this, because there's no law here that governs this."

What we have done is we have used our military detention procedures in the interim. And I understand, I was told today that we'll get some guidance coming in shortly from KFOR that will apply to all the multinational brigades.

So what we do is we bring them in, we run through, obviously, some interrogation to find out what it is that they will tell us, and then what we know about the events that occurred from our soldiers on the scene. Then we have a hearing, and we appoint a counsel for the accused, and we appoint a trial counsel, if you will, and my brigade legal officer then conducts the hearing. He determines, essentially, if it appears there is adequate facts to hold the individual over for further jurisdiction or further judicial action. When he does that, then I sign a pre-trial confinement order, which is what we would do to our soldiers, essentially, because if we let them go, they'd be a flight risk. We detain them here in a detainment facility that my military police have put together for that.

So we right now have three in detention, and one of those was a sniper that shot and killed a UCK soldier and wounded one other one, so he is in detention. As soon as KFOR gives us a jurisdiction against which we can move that case into, we will do so.

Q: General, are the needs of the returning refugees -- what's your sense of their most pressing need? Is it shortage of food? Is it shortage of shelter? What? And secondly, is it your sense that the NGOs will be able to handle that, or will you in default find yourselves basically running the thing?

General Craddock: I think, first of all, probably the most pressing need is shelter. We're lucky here in the American area, because we don't have the level of destruction that is prevalent throughout the rest of the province. We're probably somewhere around ten percent, I would say, have been destroyed. That's bad enough, but compared to other places out west, it's relatively benign.

So I think when they come back, they're looking for shelter.

Secondly, food. There's crops starting to come in. You see in the markets a lot of the produce now is starting to come in. The NGOs are here. Some food has been moved in. In Urosevac, which is on the main highway about halfway between the border and Pristina, they're putting in essentially a way station to help the refugees coming in to have a stop where they can get food and water and things like that.

Where we find a need, then we'll provide the food; we'll provide water from our stocks. We're prepared to do that. But we haven't seen that there's been a great requirement yet. They seem to be, again, coming out of Macedonia, coming in with friends, family, borrowed vehicles and things like that. They're making multiple trips to get families in.

The significant thing when they arrive is when there is no home, when it's either been burned or it's been looted, and there's nothing there. And with regard to the looting, then obviously, the first thing you want to do is go find your stuff. People who stayed have told them, "it's over in another town," so we have now to make sure that the looting is not widespread. We have to come up with -- and we're working through the process -- to come up with a claims or a process whereby they can claim ownership, prove ownership, and then get their goods back, because we have already found in some cases that some of the things that were looted and moved to other towns are still there. They were not taken, when the withdrawal occurred, to Serbia. So the returning refugees want to reclaim their goods. We're working through that now to do that in a systematic, orderly fashion, so we don't get into a wholesale looting situation.

Q: General, is there indigenous food? Is there food being produced in Kosovo that got planted this spring? Or is it coming from outside?

General Craddock: I don't know. I would just tell you the stores are opening up, and I see a lot of produce. I see a lot of peppers, tomatoes. The corn's up, the wheat's up. So it looks like at least some things got started where we are, and there's a lot of livestock grazing out there. So I don't know if it's being brought in or not, but I don't think so, in that the small towns you'll see the wagons coming in with loads of peppers and tomatoes and things like that, and I noticed recently in driving through some of the towns for the first time, the butcher shops are open and the pork is hanging in the window and the beef and stuff like that. So it looks to me like things are open again.

Q: General, there was a report that was in the last two or three nights, a small Serb military column including armored personnel carriers had breached the three-mile buffer zone and came within about a half a mile of the American sector before they kind of disappeared into the darkness. Can you tell us more about that?

General Craddock: Right. We got a report that there were approximately five tanks and ten trucks that were some five kilometers on the Serb side of the border. That report came in just about dark. The Marines were at that location. It was in their area near their border crossing checkpoint. We did not ever confirm that with U.S. eyes on. There were several people who came across the border at that time and reported it. They corroborated among each other. We dispatched helicopters. Again, we did not observe it. We could not confirm it. That's a very small force, so that could easily [have] dissipated. They could have been lost and turned around.

Again, we were unable to confirm it. It doesn't mean it didn't happen. It just means we did not confirm it to our satisfaction that there was anything there. So we discounted it.

Q: General, can you tell me who's doing the demining? And is that eventually going to be turned over to non-governmental organizations? And are there more unreported cluster bombs than you had anticipated?

General Craddock: With regard to the first question, who'll be doing the demining, right now the only demining we're going to do is that which we need to do for our own movement and right of way. If we need to get from point A to point B and the only way to do that is to clear a minefield, then we'll do that. And if we need to get to some location -- for example, a reported war crime site -- then we will clear the minefield to get there. That's what we've been doing.

Other than that, we are not going to clear minefields except for public safety. If a resident comes to us and the house, the homestead is mined and they can't get in, then we'll go in and do what we have to do to ensure that no children, no residents are stepping on mines when we can help them. So we take care of that. And to ensure our right of way.

Beyond that the agreement, the Military Technical Agreement, calls for the Serbs to come back in and under our supervision and overwatch clear the minefields they put in.

Also the UCK, by agreement with the undertaking, is to clear minefields they have put in also. Based upon the information we have now with regard to our area, there are very few UCK mines here, and if anywhere, they're just point mines as opposed to minefields. We have a lot of Serb mines that it's going to take some time to clear.

The second part, unexploded ordnance, I won't say that it's more or less. We don't know yet the extent, because we haven't covered the entire area. When you fly over in a helicopter you can see a lot of cluster bombs -- not a lot, but a significant amount of cluster bombs. There's a death rate associated with that of unexploded ordnance. That's where we're focused. We're not out looking for it. We're just documenting it where we find it.

Over a period of time, we think we'll be able to get pretty close to [a] 100 percent solution between what we find, what we see when we fly over in our helicopters, and what the local residents tell us. But that cluster bomb is probably the biggest danger in that it is so fragile, and I don't know that the residents are aware of how dangerous it is to even walk by that. It could set it off.

Q: General, do you have a good number, have you seen a good number of the breakdown of Serb vehicles, tanks and so on, that went north out of Kosovo?

General Craddock: You're asking in terms of those that broke down and didn't make it, or how many left?

Q: Yeah. How many left.

General Craddock: I can only speak for the American area, and we've been over most of it now. Looking at the fact that there are just a few main lines of communication, a few main roads through this area from the west, they came in from the west from the Prizren/Pec area, and then they would have turned north and either gone north through Pristina out through Podujevo, or turned east and gone up through Gnjilane out to the Serb border. I've seen half a dozen tanks, a couple of which broke down. The rest have been destroyed. Maybe a half a dozen personnel carriers, four artillery pieces, and some trucks, a very small number. And there was through KFOR a recovered column that came in a few days ago. Some of that equipment came in, we exported it to those sites. They picked up a few of those pieces and then took it back out. Unfortunately, some of those trucks broke down and were absolutely unable to take back all of what they'd agreed to take out.

Q: What (inaudible)

General Craddock: I'm sorry?

Q: Have you seen any war crimes sites?

General Craddock: We've had several reported to our soldiers. Now you must understand that there's different categories. In other words, we'll receive a report of a mass grave or a war crimes site, and we log that in, and we take the location.

What we will do then is we will investigate, and we will categorize this as potential, probable, unlikely, because we're not forensic experts. All we can do is to look at it and talk about what we see.

Now, we have some that we believe are probable -- a handful right now, four or five. There are others that we have got that we're not sure of, and we're waiting for the experts to come in to be able to take a look at it and determine whether or not these sites are indeed what they are alleged to be.

Q: Are troops guarding those sites? And I have another question. The four or five probables, do you have U.S. troops guarding them now?

General Craddock: No, we're not guarding them with troops around them all the time. Some of those that we have looked at are on the wrong side of minefields, so that becomes a guard in and of itself. Others we patrol routinely with helicopters to make sure there is no one around them. Lastly, we have taken pictures, and we have documentary information with regard to what it looks like -- digital cameras -- that we've provided what it looked like when we found it, from different angles, as close as we can get. Again, depending on whether we can get in close or not. We have GPS to give us the location. We describe the environment that's seen around it. What we're doing now is putting together all those folders for later use as the FBI and others come in to do the forensics investigation.

Q: Are these burial sites, or...

General Craddock: Yes. Some are burial sites. We got a lot of reports of that. What it turned out to be -- many, in several instances, would be a cemetery. Nearby there would be mounds of fresh dirt, and we would go look, and when talking to residents, they would tell us that these are people who died over the course of the winter, either through the war or some other possibly natural reason, and they don't have the money to buy the headstones, so that's what they did in the interim, and the graves are not fully set. So we take every one seriously, and we investigate every one of them, but I would just tell you that when you boil it down to the possibilities, then the numbers change considerably.

Q: These four or five probably sites, were those ones that were new? Are those new ones that were not on the list of 90-some before the KFOR went in? Or those might overlap with the 90 known?

General Craddock: I don't know. I've not seen the list of 90. They may overlap. These are just ones that were reported to us that we looked at and said, "this merits further investigation." To us this doesn't look quite right. There's something here that doesn't look good. So we'll need more investigation on those.

Q: How many dead in those sites, approximately?

General Craddock: I couldn't say. It's hard to tell. You can look at it from a distance, and you're only speculating as to what it is. So I'm unable to say at this time.

Mr. Bacon: General, thank you very much. I appreciate your taking the time. It's very informative. I hope we can do this again.

General Craddock: Yeah. Ken, if I can, before I close out I'd just like to tell you this. The soldiers over here that are working this every day are doing an absolutely magnificent job. I don't think anyone appreciates the challenging environment, the intensity, and the scope, the range of duties, the range of problems, the range of their daily chores. It is remarkable to see them out there doing what they're doing every day, and I sure hope America's proud of them.

Mr. Bacon: Thank you.

General Craddock: Thank you.

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