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Thursday, April 29, 1999 Published at 23:43 GMT 00:43 UK

World: Europe

Jesse Jackson arrives in Belgrade

The three captured soldiers appeared bruised on Serbian TV

The Reverend Jesse Jackson has arrived in Belgrade, on a mission to negotiate the freedom of three captured US soldiers, despite White House disapproval of his mission.

Kosovo: Special Report
The American civil rights campaigner drove from Croatia late on Thursday night, arriving in the Yugoslav capital shortly after air raid sirens announced the 37th night of Nato air strikes.

On his arrival Reverend Jackson said he would be meeting Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on Saturday.

He said he hoped to meet the three captured US servicemen. "I would rather try and break the cycle of pain and fear, try to gain their release, than to stand back cowardly and not try," he said.

Reverend Jackson said if the men were released then it might provide a "window" for the various sides to "move gracefully and with dignity, towards the bargaining table and away from the battlefield."

Before his departure, Reverend Jackson met President Clinton's national security adviser Sandy Berger on Wednesday night - but emerged without being persuaded to call off the trip.

Reverend Jesse Jackson: "Their release could perhaps be a circuit-breaker"
After failing to dissuade Reverend Jackson from making the trip, White House officials urged him to tell Mr Milosevic there can be no link between halting Nato airstrikes and the release of the soldiers.

Dangerous task

Reverend Jackson said it was made clear to him that the mission his delegation was undertaking was dangerous.

[ image: Jesse Jackson: A good track record of freeing US citizens]
Jesse Jackson: A good track record of freeing US citizens
"It is a high risk mission. Bombs will be falling while we are in Belgrade. And yet we know that peace is risky. Escalating war is more risky so we have weighed the price of this mission," said the Baptist minister.

Because of security concerns, the delegation of Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders will not be following a fixed schedule.

Mr Jackson is not the first politician to try to secure the release of the soldiers captured about a month ago by Serb forces on Kosovo's border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The mission of the Cypriot parliamentary leader Spyros Kyprianou, a few weeks ago, ended in failure.

Mr Jackson said they would meet the three American soldiers and he would ask Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to release them.

No safety guarantee

Mr Jackson has been told by the White House they would prefer him not to go.

"We can't guarantee their safety. The bombing will continue ... They do not have the authority to negotiate on behalf of the United States government," said White House Spokesman David Leavy.

"We are concerned that this will send a signal to President Milosevic," he said.

"We don't think it's the right time for that. With increasing signs of Milosevic's isolation even within the highest rankings of his own government, this is not the time to have opportunities for Milosevic to misuse the office of Reverend Jackson," Mr Leavy said.

The White House have repeatedly said there can be no link between the release of the soldiers and halting Nato air strikes.

"Let there be no doubt: there are no negotiations with Milosevic," Mr Leavy said.

"Our conditions are rock solid and we will not stop the bombings until they are met."

The 57-year-old founder of the Rainbow/Push Coalition, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988, has previously secured the release of captives held in Syria, Cuba, Kuwait and Iraq.

In 1984, he secured the release of a captured US Navy officer, Lieutenant Robert Goodman, from Syria.

Three years later, he travelled to Cuba and won freedom for 48 Cuban and Cuban-American prisoners.

In 1990, he was the first American to bring hostages out of Kuwait and Iraq.

Mr Jackson was named in October 1997 as a special US envoy to Africa. But his trip to Belgrade is purely a private mission unrelated to that appointment, the White House said.

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