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Monday, May 3, 1999 Published at 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK

World: Americas

Soldiers back with loved ones

The Gonzales family reunited in Germany

Three US soldiers released this weekend by President Slobodan Milosevic have had an emotional reunion with their families in Germany.

Kosovo: Special Report
Staff Sergeant Christopher Stone, 25, Specialist Corporal Steven Gonzales, 22, and Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez, 24, were met in private by 25 members of their families at an American military hospital at Landstuhl.

The soldiers landed at Ramstein army base on Sunday, where they were given a rousing welcome by a colour guard.

[ image: Family members are suffering from jet lag]
Family members are suffering from jet lag
The three men had been captured by Serb forces on 31 March on the Yugoslav-Macedonia border.

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

The family of Sergeant Gonzales said they were delighted at the release and expressed gratitude to Reverend Jackson.

[ image: Rosie Gonzales thanked Rev Jackson
Rosie Gonzales thanked Rev Jackson "from the bottom of my heart"
"I thank him from the bottom of my heart because he was determined to go there," said Rosie Gonzales.

"He was optimistic about getting them, even though there may have been a lot of doubts from a lot of other people."

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."

Road to freedom

The three soldiers, still wearing their combat fatigues, were released after 32 days in captivity.

They were driven to Zagreb, in Croatia, where they were transferred to a C-9 plane for the flight 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 had not been mistreated during their time in captivity. They added that their injuries - seen on Serb television - had been 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.

Rev Jackson said: "All of them said 'I'm free' and 'I love you'. That was their message home."

On Saturday Yugoslav news agency Tanjug said: "The president took the decision in support of Jesse Jackson's peace efforts."

Rev Jackson said he hoped the soldiers' release would bring a diplomatic response, not just a military one.

Official caution

Rev Jackson travelled back to Washington with a letter from the Yugoslav president to Mr Clinton, which was said to offer a face-to-face meeting between the two presidents.

Washington has so far reacted cautiously to diplomatic moves following the soldiers' release.

US Government officials say the freeing of the prisoners is welcome but brushed aside any reciprocal softening of the Nato campaign against Yugoslavia.

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