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DoD News Briefing, Thursday, April 1, 1999

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
April 01, 1999 4:45 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon. I'm sorry to be late.

First, let me start with an announcement. Secretary Cohen has directed that 12 additional F-117 fighters be deployed to Operation ALLIED FORCE. They will be leaving from Holloman Air Force Base soon, and they're scheduled to arrive in theater this weekend. Actually, a total of 13 planes will go over, including one to replace the lost stealth fighter last weekend. So that will bring our total of stealth fighters up to 24 in the theater and our total number of aircraft up to about 220, total number of U.S. aircraft.

With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: Ken, can you give us as much of a dump as you can on what happened with the three soldiers? A myriad of questions. Were they armed? Was the Humvee armed? Did they return fire? And most importantly, has this building determined were they in fact in Macedonia when taken into custody, or had they gone over the border into Kosovo?

A: I will be able to answer some of those questions. I'm sure you appreciate as the Secretary and the Chairman said earlier today, this incident is under investigation. Therefore, there are questions that I cannot answer at this time, because we don't have the information.

Basically, what happened was that at 7:34 a.m. EST yesterday, a group of three soldiers in a Humvee radioed back to another Humvee with which they'd been operating that they were under fire, that they were surrounded, and at that point the radio broadcast broke off. That's all the information we have. They reported being under fire and being surrounded. I've read a transcript of the radio broadcast, and that's all the information we know.

The second Humvee and a third Humvee that had been working together with the one that was reported lost immediately went to try to find the missing Humvee. They tried to reestablish radio contact, and they tried to find it. They could not.

The other soldiers that had been working with the lost Humvee did not know where it was. They did not have a precise location of where it was. And when they went to find it, they could not find it. That's all we know.

We do know that the soldiers in the Humvee were armed. I believe they had M-16s. We do not know whether they returned fire. We believe that they were trying to take escape or evasive action. But, obviously, that failed.

So the circumstances of this abduction are still under investigation, and that involves a variety of things. Obviously, it involves talking to other soldiers; it involves talking to locals; it involves marshaling the local police to help us get information from villagers, etc. But beyond what I told you, we don't have additional information.

Q: One quick follow-up, if I may. When the first Humvee that came under fire left the road, we're told -- one, why did it leave the main road; and two, were the three Humvees operating close to the Kosovo border?

A: Our belief is that they were not, that they were approximately five kilometers away from the border with Kosovo. The three Humvees had been working together; they had been patrolling as a group. They had split up to do some individual training exercises, and they were supposed to meet at a rally point. That was the time at which this Humvee undertook fire.

Q: Do we know who captured the soldiers, and is the peacekeeping mission and the patrols in Macedonia, is that now all going to have to be revamped and pulled back and curtailed because of what now appears to be an emerging hazard to the soldiers?

A: We do not know who abducted these people. And we don't know the circumstances under which they were abducted or exactly where they were abducted. Those are all questions we're trying to answer. Some of these questions may be unanswerable until we can talk to the soldiers who are currently being improperly detained.

Q: What about the revamping of the mission? Will it have to be revamped because now you've got a situation where soldiers have been grabbed and captured?

A: Obviously, the local commander is making adjustments, and I'm sure these adjustments apply to all of the forces in the area. I don't know what those adjustments are. If I knew, I wouldn't tell you because we don't want to broadcast the changes in operating procedures. But clearly, we will make adjustments to prevent this from happening again, and the adjustments could take a number of forms.

They could take a different composition of patrols; they could take different routes for the patrols; they could take a whole series of different procedures. But I'm not in a position now to tell you what those are.

Q: Did I understand -- you said they were doing a training exercise? You said a few days ago that they had been pulled back from the border. Who ordered them to undertake this mission of going back near the border?

A: I think they had been working around the border for some time. As you know, these people first went, these soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division first went to Macedonia to participate in a United Nations mission called U.N. PREDEP, the U.N. Preventive Deployment, which was protecting Macedonia. The U.N. failed to continue U.N. PREDEP for another six months. I think they voted that on February 28th. So these soldiers stayed there. They were supporting several things.

First of all, they stayed to protect the U.S. infrastructure at Camp Able Sentry at the Skopje airport. This is the camp or the base from which our soldiers have been operating for the past several years. If a peacekeeping force had gone in to Kosovo, the airbase would have been a staging area, and they would have been there to help protect the staging area before the staging began and then assist with the staging after it began.

Second, they were supporting a withdrawal of the U.N. forces. There were a total of 1,500 troops as part of U.N. PREDEP from a number of countries -- 350 of them were from the United States -- and they were there to support the removal of those troops.

Third, they were coordinating with NATO forces in FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, for force protection. So they were working with the troops that had gone there as part of the -- first the extraction force under French command, and second, the NATO enabling force which is being headed by a British General, Lieutenant General Michael Jackson.

So that's what they were doing there. They have stayed there under American control. They had continued doing some of the patrols that they had done under, when they were blue-hatted, when they were under the United Nations command. Those patrols basically involved operating out of observation posts that were along the border. I don't know whether you've been there to see those observation posts, but they tend to be on hills, and they involve a tower with a telescope in it and binoculars and some other buildings, and soldiers would go there, a squad would go there for a period of time, man the observation post, and from those posts they would go out on patrols.

Q: So they were following a set, a preset routine as they had done many times before? Or was this some mission they had been tasked to do by either an American commander there or by a NATO commander?

A: They had been doing pretty much the same, and I can't say that they were doing exactly the same run day in and day out, but they were patrolling an area in which they had patrolled for some time. They were familiar with the area.

Q: Due to the rising tensions between Yugoslavia and the NATO forces and their location in Macedonia, why was a lightly armed patrol sent so close to this tense border? Also, as the Secretary questioned, why did they split up the convoy of Humvees? And in retrospect, doesn't it seem like an unwise decision?

A: Well, I don't think I'll second-guess what happened. There's an investigation going on, and that will answer all these questions.

Q: If it turns out in your investigation that they strayed over the Serb border, what implications does that have?

A: Rather than answer a hypothetical question, I think we'll just wait for the investigation to finish.

Q: Also we heard that there's a TV crew somehow involved in this. That they may be shooting B-roll. What do you know about that?

A: I don't have any evidence about that.

Q: Ken, why haven't the three captives been declared POWs which would provide them with the maximum protection under international law?

A: We consider them to be POWs. We consider that -- we believe that they are -- we assert that they are covered by the Geneva Convention, which, of course, gives them a series of internationally recognized protections. At a minimum they are entitled to POW status.

It may be, depending on the circumstances under which they were taken, that they were entitled to immediate release as well.

Q: Do you have any indications that they were in Macedonia at the time they were captured?

A: All of that is under investigation. I've tried to explain we don't know the location of where this happened.

Q: Can you tell us what the U.S. military reaction [is] to the Yugoslav announcement they're going to put these men on trial tomorrow?

A: We're outraged by that. They're covered by the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention says that prisoners of war should not be tried.

Q: To follow up on that, General Shelton this morning said something about there were some initiatives underway to resolve this situation. Can you provide any clarification?

A: General Shelton declined to provide clarification, and I think he took exactly the right tack.

Q: Ken, could you say whether there's been any response from the effort to reach the Serbs through the Swede mission in Belgrade? Also is there anything you can tell us about the search and rescue mission? Who was involved, how deep into Kosovo, if at all, they went.

A: Look. First of all, it's the State Department's job to respond on the diplomacy side here.

Secondly, in terms of the search and rescue operation, I can't give you details on exactly what they did except to say that it was massive.

After the report went back that three soldiers were missing, Task Force Able Sentry sent out a Blackhawk helicopter. It was joined by two British helicopters. Then French and Italian helicopters also joined in the search.

In addition, there were 80 to 90 soldiers from Task Force Able Sentry, American soldiers involved in the search, and 60 or more French soldiers, and I believe there were some other soldiers involved as well.

We also at one time had an aircraft up with some infrared capability to try to find the Humvee, but the weather was very bad last night, and the search was difficult, and of course in the end it was unsuccessful.

Q: Ken, is the United States at war with Yugoslavia?

A: We are -- without getting into the technicalities, we have made very clear what our goals are, and we will continue to attack the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until our military goals are met.

Q: If I could just follow up. By asserting prisoner of war status for these three captured soldiers, isn't that a tacit admission that the United States is at war with Yugoslavia?

A: Absolutely not. By international law the Geneva Convention applies to all periods of hostilities.

Q: Can I follow up on that? The Secretary in Norfolk, before you just said what you did from the podium, called them "illegal detainees." Why the sudden change?

A: He said that their status was subject to review, and it's been reviewed, and the government has decided that the Geneva Convention applies.

Q: What significance should one assign to the fact that you're sending over 12 more 117s as opposed to F-15Es or some other non-stealthy aircraft? I'm thinking of the stealth's capability to penetrate deeply defended targets in cities. Could this be a signal that Belgrade will be targeted now with these aircraft, possibly?

A: I've made it a point not to talk about specific prospective targets, but we've made no secret of the fact that the Serb air defenses are robust and remain so, even though we have achieved tactical maneuverability as needed. And the F-117A stealth Night Hawk fighters are perfect for this type of situation.

Q: For going after air defense as opposed to headquarters and city suburbs or something.

A: Tony, I said I'm not going to talk about specific prospective targets.

Q: Speaking of the F-117A, what is the status of that report on the one that was downed on the how and the why...

A: I talked to General Ralston about that just this afternoon. As far as he knows, the report is not complete yet.

Q: Have any adjustments been made in order to, in the operation of these F-117s to increase their stealthiness or effectiveness as a result of anything we learned from that incident?

A: That is exactly the type of question that I think we would decline to answer.

Q: Ken, in Norfolk today the Secretary said: "We will spare no effort to secure the safe return of the soldiers." What did he mean by that?

A: That question came up again to General Shelton, and he declined to answer the question, as I did earlier. I don't think we'll be very specific about that.

Q: Did the captured soldiers have any affect on today's bombing runs?

A: It did not that I'm aware of, no.

Q: You said, Ken, that they were patrolling in an area that they'd patrolled for some time. Does that imply in any way that their movements were predictable to somebody who was laying a trap for them?

A: That will be part of the investigation. I said I don't know whether they were following the same route or the same pattern or patrolling at the same time of day every day. That's among the things that will come out in the investigation.

Q: On Friday you had said that the lightly armed Americans near the border had been withdrawn to Skopje. Was it just some of them that were withdrawn? And if so, were they sent back up?

A: Obviously, these fellows were sent back up. I don't know the circumstances of which they were sent back up. That will all be part of the investigation.

Q: Has Secretary Cohen gotten any requests from the U.S. commander in Macedonia for additional equipment, and has he made any decisions of any additional equipment being sent?

A: I'm not aware that he has gotten a specific request, nor that any additional equipment is being sent. He has spoken with his counterpart in Macedonia in the last several days. I don't know when exactly, but I think I mentioned in an earlier briefing that he talked to his counterparts in Macedonia and Albania. He's very aware of their concerns about security. One of the things he's pointed out to his counterpart in Macedonia is that there are now currently 10,000 to 12,000 NATO troops in Macedonia, and obviously we would regard any threats to these troops as a threat to Macedonia as well.

Q: But just to be very clear, was there any additional force protection equipment for these guys that got seized? For Task Force Able Sentry -- is there any additional force protection equipment going for the men who are still there now?

A: Not that I'm aware of now, no.

Q: May I just clarify. You have said that they are now POWs, so that is an update from what Cohen had said earlier, that they were illegal detainees pending an investigation. Now they are POWs.

My other question is, you had said also that this investigation is ongoing, but it probably may not be ended until you get word from the three that are being held. It sounds like they could be a long time then.

A: I can't forecast when people will decide to end the investigation. There may be a substantial amount of information they can gather from talking to people in the unit, from asking exactly the types of questions you've asked here. Why were they so close to the border? Had they been following regular routes? There are a number of questions that I think can be answered without talking to the soldiers at hand. But there may be certain questions about location, about exactly what happened, that can only be answered once we get access to the soldiers. Our position is that the soldiers should be released immediately. If that were the case, we would have access to them soon.

Q: And just to follow up, picking up on that last point. Even though they are now POWs, the United States would tell Yugoslavia that there is still no reason, they should be released immediately and...

A: We say, as I said earlier, at a minimum, at a minimum, they are entitled to POW status and the protection that that provides under the Geneva Convention. And we think depending on the circumstances under which they were detained, that they could be entitled to immediate release.

Q: What circumstances would those be that would entitle them to immediate release?

A: Clearly one circumstance would be if they were captured in Macedonia.

Q: Can you give us a sense of the pace of operations conducted last night against Serb army units and armor, in particular?

A: Weather limited what we could do last night. We did attack a Yugoslav army unit in central Kosovo that's been involved in some of the ethnic cleansing activities. We did attack also a major ammunition dump, another major ammunition dump in Kosovo. We believe that these attacks were successful. But again, the weather has made it difficult to have a very affirming picture of what happened.

Q: Was the attack with precision-guided weapons or Tomahawks?

A: These were attacked by NATO air, I believe. Yes.

Q: Was the army unit -- was it a building, or was it a unit that was deployed in the field, so to speak?

A: I believe it was a unit that was deployed.

Q: Can you be more...

A: It was a motorized unit. So it was, I guess, not as heavy as armor, but it was probably with APCs.

Q: The Air Force put out a media-type report this morning indicating that the A-10 had in fact been used. Can you confirm that?

A: Yes, it has been used, but I don't know yet whether it's been -- it's been flown in missions. I don't myself know whether it's actually launched ordnance yet, but it has flown in strike missions.

Q: Can you give us an update on the THEODORE ROOSEVELT battle group, and where those cruise-missile-capable ships might be staying in the Med?

A: I cannot give you any update beyond what the Chairman said, which is that its assignment to Operation ALLIED FORCE is an option, but there hasn't been a decision made yet.

Q: There's apparently been a very dramatic effort to try and bring pressure to bear on the units that are shelling large concentrations of refugees in southwest Kosovo. Anything at all you can tell us on that? How that's going?

A: We are trying to do that, but that's been difficult because of weather.

Q: Ken, the Pentagon has placed great emphasis on force protection, yet it appears in this case that this lightly armed force didn't have any kind of back-up. Why didn't they have helicopter gunships? Was this a breakdown in force protection itself?

A: I think that that's exactly the type of question that we'll have to delay answering until the investigation is complete.

Q: Also, the President this morning mentioned that the F-117 that went down was hit. Was he indicating it was hit by a missile or by ground fire?

A: We have not yet finished the investigation. I think that the people who saw...

Q: ...made a determination...

A: He may have made a determination, but our investigation isn't complete.

Q: Could you talk about the reason for the targeting of the bridge across the Danube in Novi Sad?

A: It is part of a plan to make force mobility more difficult, to interdict the flow of supplies and of forces.

Q: Getting back to the army unit again that you attacked, was that in southwest Kosovo? Did you see in the (inaudible) of that attack any retrenching on their part? Any particular reaction? Did they move anything else back from a forward position?

A: My understanding is that it was not in southwest Kosovo; it was in central Kosovo, and I can't answer the question precisely for the reasons I gave, that the weather hasn't been particularly good. I can't answer the question about retrenchment.

Q: Have B-1s been used?

A: No. I think they just arrived today.

Q: What percentage of flights have not been able to complete their missions because of the weather?

A: I don't have a figure on that.

Q: Ken, there's a report that the Pentagon is now running low on jet fuel and needs to make a quick purchase of more fuel stuffs. Do you know anything about that?

A: I don't know anything about it. Jet fuel isn't hard to buy. I don't think it would be a problem.

Q: Could I ask you to comment also on today's Wall Street Journal report that quotes a senior U.S. Army officer as saying that some planners are pondering how to fly in the 82nd Airborne Division as a blocking force to create a safety zone for ethnic Albanian refugees being driven out of Kosovo? Can you tell us anything about that?

A: I'm not aware of any planning at an official or high level involving the 82nd Airborne. I'm sure that on any given day you can find somebody in the Pentagon planning to do something.

Q: You mentioned earlier that this unit that was on patrol was part of Task Force Able Sentry. I thought that that had been disbanded and that these units were part of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

A: It's still referred to as Task Force Able Sentry, and their camp is still called Camp Able Sentry.

Q: Have they curtailed their patrols as a result of this incident?

A: I was asked that question earlier, and I'm sure that the routes of the patrols and the types of patrols have changed, but I don't know whether they've stopped patrolling.

Q: They said yesterday that in addition to the hazard of Serbs coming over a line and getting involved in an engagement, that there are people within Macedonia who are hostile to the Americans now.

Does the Pentagon consider that that's now become a hostile area internally because of the strikes and the attitude about the strike there?

A: Well, certainly a hostile act occurred somewhere. We don't know where it occurred. That's exactly the type of thing we're looking into. And until we know the answer to where it occurred, it's somewhat difficult to answer that question.

Q: There were reports that Milosevic fired eight of his top generals and replaced them. What do you know about that?

A: It would be an indication that he's not pleased with the way the battle's going, but I have not heard that.

Press: Thank you.