Crash Kills U.S. Officials Vehicle Slides Off Road Near Sarajevo, Explodes After Tumbling Down Ravine
Three U.S. officials, traveling to Sarajevo with a new U.S. plan for peace in the Balkans, died Saturday when their armored vehicle skidded off a rainsoaked mountain road, tumbled more than 300 feet into a ravine and exploded.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert C. Frasure, the special envoy of President Clinton to the former Yugoslavia; Joseph J. Kruzel, deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO affairs; and Air Force Col. Samuel Nelson Drew, a National Security Council aide, were killed along with a French soldier, U.S. officials in the region said.
Two other Americans and two other Frenchmen were injured.
State Department spokesman David Johnson confirmed the deaths at a Washington briefing Saturday afternoon. The three U.S. victims were the first American officials to die in the nearly four years of the Balkan conflict, Johnson said.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who was leading the U.S. peace delegation to the region, and Lt. Gen. Wesley Clark, of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were traveling in a different armored vehicle and were not hurt. They were expected to fly to Washington today, accompanying the bodies of their colleagues home, and to return to Europe next week, officials said.
Clinton, speaking before a round of golf in Jackson Hole, Wyo., called the deaths a “tragic accident,” expressing his belief that foul play had no role. The perilous road, which snakes over Mount Igman outside Sarajevo and often is targeted by Bosnian Serb gunners who ring the Bosnian capital, had become perilously muddy after recent rains.
Clinton, his senior foreign policy advisers and U.S. officials in the region vowed that the deaths, which came at a critical time in the Balkans, would not shake American resolve to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict - the bloodiest in Europe since World War II. Because it was an accident, it has no policy implications and will not derail the latest U.S. peace initiative, officials said.
“I would think that the thing that they would want us most to do is to press ahead, and that’s what we intend to do,” Clinton said, calling the officials “immensely talented, patriotic Americans.”
Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, who added Drew to his staff just a month ago when Clinton ordered a more vigorous effort to find an end to the war, said he had assured Drew’s widow that “we would persevere in the quest for peace for which Nelson Drew gave his life.”
However, the deaths are “certainly going to make it more difficult to carry on our diplomacy” because the three men were key members of the Bosnia team, Johnson said. Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the loss of Frasure could hurt the U.S. efforts.
Frasure, 53, was an experienced diplomat. As U.S. ambassador to Estonia, he had helped negotiate Russian troop withdrawal from that country. Since he took up his position in February as Clinton’s third special envoy to the Balkans, he had established a rapport with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, one of the main power brokers in the region and backer of Serb insurgents in Croatia and Bosnia.
The official gave Frasure credit for outlining a deal under which crippling economic sanctions against Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, imposed in 1992 as punishment for its support for rebel Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, would be lifted in exchange for Yugoslav recognition of those two countries.
U.S. officials also mourned the loss of Kruzel, who was at the center of U.S. efforts to extend NATO membership to the former countries of the Warsaw Pact, especially Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Kruzel, 50, a former professor at Duke and Ohio State universities, was one of the architects of growing U.S. defense ties with several countries in the Balkans, including Croatia, as a counterweight to the military might of Yugoslavia, which once had the fourth-largest standing army in Europe.
According to Johnson and other U.S. officials, the American diplomats were riding in a French armored personnel carrier heading down the Mount Igman road at 11:30 a.m. when they met a U.N. convoy coming in the other direction. That section of the road faces Sarajevo but is well above a portion of the route that regularly is targeted by the Serbs.
The vehicle carrying the diplomats moved over to make way for the U.N. convoy, and the waterlogged dirt road collapsed underneath it. The vehicle began “literally spinning down a very steep ravine,” a U.S. official said. As it tumbled, the armored personnel carrier appeared to hit one mine and possibly two, although Johnson said later that the reports of mines appeared to be unfounded.
After the vehicle had fallen about 300 feet, it came to a stop, caught fire and exploded, the official said.
The injured Americans were identified as Peter Hargreaves and Daniel Gerstein of the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.
The delegation’s stop in Sarajevo had been scheduled earlier in the week, but bad weather forced the delegation to travel to Yugoslavia and Croatia first. Rain continued in and around Sarajevo, so the decision was made to drive over Mount Igman instead of taking a helicopter as had been planned previously.
The U.S. delegation was traveling to Sarajevo with a new U.S. plan for peace in the Balkans.
The American initiative differs from previous attempts because, according to Western officials, it would give the Bosnian Serbs, who occupy about 65 percent of Bosnia, a more compact territory than they were granted under a peace proposal they rejected about a year ago. The U.S. plan also recognizes the Serb seizure of Srebrenica and Zepa, two U.N. “safe areas” that fell to the Serbs in July, and gives the Serbs the option of confederating with Yugoslavia. An unstated element of the plan involved a possible swap of a third isolated Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia, Gorazde, for territory that would allow besieged Sarajevo to link up with Muslim-held land in central Bosnia.
In addition to the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa, other recent changes in the Balkans have raised prospects for peace. Earlier this month, the Croatian army conquered most of the 24 percent of its country that had been occupied by rebel Serbs. In so doing, the Croatians lifted a Serb siege on another isolated Muslim enclave, Bihac, in northwestern Bosnia.
The emergence of the Croatian army as an important counterbalance to the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav army could contribute to stability in the region, diplomats have said.
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