Clinton thanks B-2 crews for war effort
Peacekeepers poised to enter Kosovo
June 11, 1999
WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Missouri (CNN) -- President Clinton thanked pilots and support crews Friday for their role in NATO's Yugoslavia bombing campaign as an international peacekeeping force, including U.S. troops, prepared to enter Kosovo.
As the president spoke to pilots and support personnel at Whiteman Air Force Base, about 4,000 U.S. Marines and Army soldiers were in Macedonia, awaiting NATO orders to move into the American peacekeeping sector in eastern Kosovo.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, meanwhile, assured ethnic Albanian refugees packed in a sweltering camp in Macedonia that NATO peacekeepers would help them return home "to live a decent, normal life."
In a hangar at Whiteman -- home of the B-2 Stealth bombers that flew from Missouri to Yugoslavia to hit Serb command bunkers and air defenses -- Clinton spoke with one of the bat-winged aircraft as a backdrop.
He accused Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic of exploiting ethnic and religious differences in the Balkans over the years, particularly the recent "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovars of Albanian descent.
"He wasn't just calling people names," the president said. "This exploitation involved mass murder, mass rape, mass burning, mass destruction of religious and cultural institutions and personal property records -- an attempt to erase the very presence of a people from their land and to get rid of them dead or alive."
"It was that which the B-2s from Whiteman flew to reverse," Clinton said.
Milosevic accepted NATO's conditions for ending the 79-day air campaign because "you made him do it," the president told hundreds of Whiteman personnel, reservists and their families.
The B-2s -- which made 30-hour, round-trip, nonstop missions to Yugoslavia -- were a staple in NATO's bombing arsenal. Using its stealth technology, the plane can evade enemy radar and deliver bombs with precision.
Air Force officials estimated the bomber flew just 3 percent of all NATO sorties but accounted for 20 percent of all targets hit -- with little or no collateral damage.
Brig. Gen. Leroy Barnidge, who commands the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman, presented Clinton with a cap showing the wing's official emblem.
"When people see you (wearing that hat)," Barnidge joked to the president, "people will think you drive a B-2 to work."
The U.S. peacekeepers were gathered in northern Macedonia, near the Kosovo border, at a staging area called Camp Able Sentry.
They make up an initial U.S. "enabling" force that will set up a headquarters, clear land mines and escort ethnic Albanian refugees home.
Albright visited the makeshift military camp Friday during a one-day visit to Macedonia.
"I can't tell you how proud we all are of what you have done and what you are going to do," Albright told the U.S. peacekeepers. "The people you are going to be seeing and the country you are going to be freeing has gone through some dreadful times."
"In fact," she said, "I don't even know all the horrors you are going to see."
Later, Albright was cheered as she spoke to Kosovars living at the Stenkovic refugee camp, a tent city that is home to about 25,000 ethnic Albanians, many of them children.
Albright counseled against vengeance when they return home, and said NATO's goal was a multi-ethnic democracy in Kosovo. But she also acknowledged the task was awesome and said many of the refugees may not be able to get home before the onset of winter.
In a statement to hundreds of refugees crowded behind a rope, Albright said, "We want you to rebuild. We want you to go home. But be very careful. There are land mines."
"All the world knows about your suffering, they know you want to go home and have a normal life," Albright said. "You will go home and be able to live a decent normal life and do it your way."
Correspondents John King and David Ensor contributed to this report.
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