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Remarks on Departure From Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, and an Exchange With Reporters

May 08, 1999

Bombing of Chinese Embassy in Belgrade

The President. Ladies and gentlemen, as all of you know, last night the NATO airstrikes included a number of command and control targets in Belgrade, targets that involved Mr. Milosevic's ability to do what he has done in Kosovo to run the people out and repress them. Unfortunately, the Chinese Embassy was inadvertently damaged, and people lost their lives, and others have been injured.

It was a tragic mistake, and I want to offer my sincere regret and my condolences to both the leaders and the people of China.

Having said that, let me also remind you that it is clear that we're doing everything we can to avoid innocent civilian casualties. Because the television and other media are in Belgrade, you know every one that's occurred, but I would remind you that well over 10,000 sorties have now been flown, with massive ordinance having been dropped. And that is evidence that we're working very hard to avoid this.

It doesn't remove the sadness from the people in China and from the other innocent civilians that have been hurt, but we are doing our best. And I think it's important to remember why these airstrikes are necessary. Many thousands of Kosovars have been killed. There have been rapes; they have been burned out of their homes; their records have been destroyed; and hundreds of thousands have been turned into refugees.

This can all end tomorrow with an agreement that meets the minimum conditions to restore Kosovo to civilized life; that is, the Serb forces have to leave; a multinational security force with NATO involvement has to come in; the Kosovars have to be able to go home with security and autonomy.

And we're working hard to achieve that goal. We made some progress last week, diplomatically. And meanwhile, I think it's important that NATO stay the course.

Q. There are protests around the world. Russia is calling this barbaric. Could this derail the diplomatic efforts you're making toward a peace deal?

The President. Well, it wasn't barbaric. What is barbaric is what Mr. Milosevic has done. It's tragic. It's awful. But it's a tragedy, and it was an accident. What is barbaric is the intentional ethnic cleansing that he has provoked for a decade now, first in Bosnia where a quarter of a million people lost their lives and 2 1/2 million people were made refugees, and now here. That is what is barbaric.

And I believe that Russia recognizes that, which is why they've shown so much leadership on the diplomatic front. And I would encourage them to stay on that course. If they want the bombing to end, then the Kosovars need to come home. We need to reverse the ethnic cleansing. We need to know they'll be secure.

And that's what I would urge everyone to think about here. You know, I'd like to see a few more demonstrations against the helpless—I mean, the treatment against the helpless Kosovars.

I don't blame people for being upset about it; I'm upset about it. But it is clearly—if you remember that over 10,000 sorties have been flown here, it is obvious that the NATO—the generals and the pilots have worked very hard to avoid this.

I know when I was in Germany, I talked to pilots that literally had risked their own lives to avoid innocent civilian casualties when weapons being fired against them were being fired from heavily populated civilian areas—on roofs and things like that—and they didn't fire back. They risked their own lives to avoid this sort of thing.

So this will happen if you drop this much ordinance over this period of time. I think the campaign is necessary. And what we need to do to end it is to meet the conditions necessary for the Kosovars to go home with safety and autonomy.

Q. Is this a setback for peace?

The President. No. What I hope it will do— I'm convinced that NATO should continue its mission. And what I think it should do is to make everybody who's interested in peace redouble their efforts to get Mr. Milosevic to reverse ethnic cleansing here. We need some sense of proportion here. Look at the numbers of people involved: thousands of people killed— of Kosovars; hundreds of thousands driven out of their homes, their homes burned, their records burned—coming on top of what happened in Bosnia. Let's not forget what the record is here.

And I hate this. And as I said, I send my regrets and my profound condolences to the leaders and the people of China, and to the innocent people in Serbia who have perished. I hate it. But someone sometime has got to stand up against this sort of ethnic cleansing and killing people wholesale and uprooting them and trashing them and destroying their lives by the hundreds of thousands solely because of their religion and ethnicity. Otherwise, there will be far greater tragedies.

You know, these things are not easy. But someone had to do it sometime. And the answer is for everyone who wants an end to it to put some pressure on the Serbs and get this diplomatic thing even more energized. And let's keep working and put it behind us. No one would be happier than me when it's over. But what we're doing is the right thing to do.

NOTE: The President spoke at 1:35 p.m. In his remarks, he referred to President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro).

William J. Clinton, Remarks on Departure From Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, and an Exchange With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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