BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- With a bus, three camera crews and a panel of religious leaders in tow, the Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived in a war zone last night in a bid to gain the release of three captive U.S. soldiers.
The high-stakes, unofficial mission was set against a back drop of continued allied bombing and intense diplomatic maneuvering to resolve the Kosovo crisis.
Overriding objections of the Clinton administration that feared the mission might send mixed signals to the Belgrade leadership, Jackson said the group was engaged "in an earnest search and appeal for a diplomatic breakthrough that we might move from war to coexistence."
"We come without any message from our government," Jackson told reporters after a six-hour bus trip from Zagreb, Croatia, to Belgrade. "We're not being sponsored by our government. But we've been in touch with our government."
"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. "Failure is to be too timid to try. Failure is to surrender to war and not search for reconciliation, for reconstruction and peace."
Jackson said the delegation hopes to meet the soldiers today, and he expects to visit Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Meetings are also planned with other key Yugoslav government officials and religious leaders.
Jackson said the Clinton administration made it clear that the bombing would not be halted during his mission.
Within an hour of his arrival, anti-aircraft fire lighted Belgrade's night sky, and an allied aerial assault was unleashed against a Serb TV transmission tower.
"They made it clear to us that they would bomb even though we are here, and maybe bomb near where we are," Jackson said. "That's their choice, and that's our risk. We made the decision to take the risk. We hope that they will be sensitive to our presence, and our mission."
Asked if the trip might be used for propaganda purposes by Milosevic, or send a mixed signal regarding U.S. policy, Jackson said, "We can disabuse him of that thought. We're here, focused but unafraid."
Jackson's history of extracting hostages from difficult situations will likely be put to a mighty test in Belgrade. In the past, he has arranged hostage releases with the likes of Cuba's Fidel Castro, Syria's Hafez Assad and Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
But now, he faces the prospect of trying to extract prisoners of war from an often wily Balkan protagonist, Milosevic.
Since their capture March 31, Yugoslav authorities have expressed little inclination to release the three soldiers, Spc. Steven M. Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas, Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles and Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Mich.
Jackson said Milosevic has the power to release the soldiers on "humanitarian grounds."
"They are of no value to him as trophies of war," he said. "Their presence incites an intensity of the war effort so their currency is in their release."
Jackson also indicated the mission could be used to foster movement on three key issues in the Kosovo crisis: cessation of allied bombing, return of ethnic Albanian refugees and introduction of a multination peacekeeping force to Kosovo.
"We hope there will be some initiative and move back toward coexistence rather than co-annihilation," he said.
Asked if the mission would be a failure if the soldiers are not released, Jackson said: "No, we will have tried to do the right thing."
Among those joining Jackson were several Orthodox priests, including Bishop Kodic Mitrophan, the bishop of Eastern America for the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States and Canada.
The delegation also included Rep. Rod Blagojevich, and Illinois Democrat, whose father was raised in a village outside Kragujevac in central Serbia. After being held four years in a German POW camp and three years in a refugee camp, Blagojevich's father came to America.
Blagojevich maintained the delegation had "a fighting chance," to gain the soldiers' release. Asked what message he would give to Milosevic, Blagojevich said: "Can we have our soldiers back? Why don't you let them go home?"