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Sunday, May 2, 1999 Published at 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK

World: Europe

'Free at last'

The soldiers and Jesse Jackson as they arrived in Croatia

Three captured US soldiers released by President Slobodan Milosevic have arrived in Germany for medical checks and a military debriefing.

Kosovo: Special Report
They landed at Ramstein army base, where they were given a rousing welcome by a colour guard.

Relatives and friends of the soldiers are expected to arrive at the base for an emotional reunion on Monday.

The soldiers were handed over earlier on Sunday to American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson, who visited Belgrade to make a personal plea for their freedom to the president.

In other developments, Nato has admitted losing two warplanes and accidentally attacking a bus carrying civilian passengers, with heavy loss of life.

[ image:  ]
On arrival in Germany, the former PoWs were immediately taken by helicopter to the nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a US military hospital for medical evaluations.

President Bill Clinton said: "As we welcome our soldiers home, our thoughts also turn to the over one million Kosovars who are unable to go home."

Staff Sergeant Christopher Stone, Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez, and Specialist Corporal Steven Gonzales were captured by Serb forces on 31 March on the Yugoslav-Macedonia border.

Road to freedom

On Sunday, after 32 days captivity and still wearing their combat fatigues, they left Yugoslavia.

Parminder Sandhu: "A hero's welcome for the three soldiers in Germany"
They were driven to Zagreb, in Croatia, where they were transferred to the C-9 plane that flew them to Germany.

As they walked across the border into Croatia, they sang: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last!"

During an impromptu press conference on the border they said they had already had their first taste of home - a drink of Coca Cola.

The men said that they were not mistreated during their time in captivity. They added that injuries, seen by the world when the men were paraded on Serb televison, were received during their capture and not afterwards.

Message home

Shortly after the men were officially handed over to Rev Jackson each of them used his mobile phone to ring relatives.

Correspondent Mike Williams describes the men's release
Rev Jackson said: "All of them said 'I'm free' and 'I love you'. That was their message home."

Rosie Gonzales, mother of one of the men, said: "I thank him [Jesse Jackson] from the bottom of my heart because he said he was determined to go there."

Yugoslav news agency Tanjug reported on Saturay: "The president took the decision in support of Jesse Jackson's peace efforts.

[ image: Phoning home: Staff Sgt Christopher Stone]
Phoning home: Staff Sgt Christopher Stone
Rev Jackson said he hoped the soldiers' release would bring a diplomatic response, not just a military one.

Mr Clinton is expected to see both Rev Jackson and the Russian special envoy for the Balkans Viktor Chernomyrdin on Monday.

The civil rights leader will deliver a letter from the Yugoslav president to Mr Clinton, which is said to offer a face-to-face meeting between the two presidents.

But Rev Jackson's call for a night of peace to mark the release was not heeded by Nato, which carried out a further night of attacks.

(Click here to see a map of recent Nato strikes)

Nato officials have welcomed the release, which came just hours after the alliance lost its second plane of the conflict.

Two planes lost

The F-16 crashed over western Serbia during an overnight raid.

Diplomatic Correspondent Humphrey Hawksley: "No let up in Nato's campaign"
Nato says it suffered engine failure, while Serbian media reported it shot down.

The pilot was rescued by allied forces after he ejected in an area near the Croatian border.

A few hours after the crash, Nato admitted losing another plane - this time an American Harrier. It was said to have crashed in the Adriatic while on a training mission. The pilot was rescued.

The F-16 is the second warplane Nato has acknowledged losing over Yugoslavia since it began its air attacks more than six weeks ago. The first was an F-117 Stealth fighter on 27 March.

Nato has also admitted that one of its aircraft attacked a bridge in Kosovo and hit a civilian bus carrying dozens of passengers.

[ image: Smouldering wreckage of the bus]
Smouldering wreckage of the bus
A Nato statement said it targeted Luzane bridge as a "key north-south supply route for Yugoslav military and special police".

The statement says "unfortunately, after weapon release a bus crossed the bridge".

The bus, on a regular passsenger service between Pristina and Nis, was cut in two by a missile as it approached a bridge near Luzane, 20km (12 miles) north of Pristina.

One section plunged off the bridge. Passengers' belongings were strewn along the road and riverside.

Tanjug reported that an ambulance sent to the scene was hit in a second Nato strike. Nato says it has no information about this, and is still investating the incident.

On the diplomatic front, a US Congressional delegation says it has secured agreement with a team of senior Russian lawmakers and an adviser to President Milosevic on a framework for resolving the Kosovo crisis.

Congressman Curt Weldon says the plan complies with Nato's conditions for stopping Operation Allied Force but also takes into account Russian and Serbian concerns.

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