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Jackson Revels in Release of POWs

May 3, 1999 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a city under U.S. bombardment for six weeks, the Rev. Jesse Jackson picked up a telephone and called President Clinton to report some good news. ``I’ve received the prisoners and we’re departing Belgrade,″ he said.

The president thanked Jackson. It was after midnight Saturday, so they didn’t discuss the letter the civil rights leader was bringing from President Slobodan Milosevic, or Jackson’s desire for Clinton to acknowledge Milosevic’s peace overture.

In a telephone interview Sunday, Jackson said Clinton didn’t really need to say much more at that point. ``Clearly, he is delighted,″ Jackson said. ``Now he has to determine the worth and weight of a diplomatic gesture.″

Today, Jackson returned to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington and was greeted by a crowd of about 40 people, including his wife and son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill. He was to meet with Clinton later today at the White House.

He urged Clinton should avoid the urge to ``demonize″ Milosevic. ``If we take the position of demonization, there is no reason ever to negotiate,″ Jackson said. ``You don’t negotiate with demons.″

Escorting three American prisoners of war out of Yugoslavia was quite a coup for Jackson, who has flitted from cause to cause in recent years and is seen as something of a gadfly at the White House. It had frowned upon his mission to Belgrade from the beginning.

Thinking of his own five children, Jackson said, ``I could not stand to walk way. ... I kept arguing the case about they have no currency in jail, they are just war bait.″

Interviewed today on ABC’s ``Good Morning America,″ Jackson said Milosevic eventually suggested he might free one soldier _ the oldest, who has a wife and child. Jackson said he pointed out that that soldier _ Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone _ is white and the other two are Hispanic, and said releasing only Stone would ``send a very ugly signal back home.″

Jackson said he eventually was able to persuade Milosevic that since the three had been captured together, they should be released together.

Jackson, who headed an ecumenical religious delegation on his mission, lingered at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany to await the arrival of the soldiers’ families before returning to Washington today.

He wouldn’t talk about the letter he had for Clinton; ``It’s his letter,″ Jackson said. White House spokesman David Leavy also declined to comment on the letter, saying the president had not seen it.

The journey to Yugoslavia was Jackson’s fourth trip to a foreign land to retrieve captive Americans. In 1984, he went to Syria and won the release of Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman Jr., whose jet bomber was shot down during a raid over Syrian anti-aircraft positions in Lebanon.

Several months later, Jackson was in Cuba, talking Fidel Castro into releasing 48 American and Cuban political prisoners. In 1990, he helped win the release from Iraq of more than 700 foreign women and children detained as human shields against an American military attack following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Jackson reveled in his success Sunday, saying this latest foray into hostile territory as a freelance negotiator was the riskiest of them all.

``This mission was more volatile, and more violent,″ he said. ``We saw bombs exploding. The night we got there was the heaviest bombing. But it was worth the risk.″

And with the success came criticisms _ that Jackson let himself be used by Milosevic, that he boosted the Yugoslav leader by praying with him, that he was meddling by urging Clinton and NATO to talk to Milosevic out of goodwill.

But Jackson made no apologies for putting pressure on NATO, saying ``there are certain crises that deserve the highest level of presidential attention.″

``Unless you talk, you cannot determine at what point your bombs are leading to the end,″ he said. ``We must look forward to a meeting, whether it’s President Clinton or (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair.″

Jackson said experience has taught him that freeing prisoners can open doors. He recalled that then-President Reagan called Syrian President Haifez Assad after Goodman’s release.

``It led to a greater ability to deal with Lebanon and Syria and the ... (Palestine Liberation Organization) at the time,″ Jackson said. ``So I certainly hope there is a courteous response to (Milosevic) setting our prisoners free. He had the power not to do it. But he did it.″

In his session with Milosevic, Jackson said he laid out this option: Milosevic could stubbornly keep the prisoners and watch NATO bombs make rubble of his nation. Or he could set them free and ``build a diplomatic bridge″ so that Yugoslavia would not become a permanent pariah.

``I had to convince him of what his options were,″ Jackson said. He held Milosevic’s hand and prayed with him. The preacher’s persuasion worked on the Serb leader eager to change his image as a war criminal.

Later, Jackson told CNN he felt there was nothing wrong with praying with Milosevic even though some critics viewed it as inappropriate. ``You should pray for sinners and victims, not just pray for and with friends,″ he said.

After signing documents, Jackson told the soldiers they were free, and they headed by bus for Croatia. They walked across the border together, hand in hand, chanting the phrase that Jackson’s mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., used to close his 1963 march on Washington: ``Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.″