TOPICS > Politics

Triumphant Return

December 11, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: On November 1st, three international Red Cross workers, an American pilot, an Australian nurse, and Kenyan co-pilot were taken hostage in the African nation of Sudan. A rebel group ambushed the three workers as they landed their small airplane near Gogrial in the southern part of the country. The rebels held them for 38 days, demanding millions of dollars in ransom. Then, last Sunday, Congressman Bill Richardson of New Mexico personally negotiated their release. Just two weeks ago, a similar effort by Richardson secured the freedom of the young American held in North Korea. Congressman Richardson returned to Washington last night, and he joins us now. Welcome, Congressman.

REP. BILL RICHARDSON, (D) New Mexico: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: How did you get involved in this latest situation?

REP. BILL RICHARDSON: About 10 days ago, the wife of the American who was a constituent of mine from New Mexico, the International Red Cross, the government of Sudan asked me to get involved. I never get involved in these rescue efforts unless the State Department gives me a green light. And it all came together because for some 30 days the Red Cross had been trying to negotiate a release and had failed with this Commander Karbimo, a rebel leader in the southern part of Sudan, who although allied with the government of Sudan, is a dissident within that faction. It’s just very complicated.

MARGARET WARNER: So you flew to Sudan last Sunday?

REP. BILL RICHARDSON: I first went to the International Red Cross on Friday in Geneva to get briefed by the negotiators in Geneva from the Red Cross that had been dealing with this commander who held the hostages. Then I flew on–on Saturday to Khartoum and then immediately Sunday morning to this rebel outpost that is some 600 miles from Khartoum. We flew in a DC-3 50-year-old propeller plane without any air–without any windows. I thought my last days were near. But we finally made it, landed in this surreal jungle atmosphere of guerrilla camp.

MARGARET WARNER: So go ahead. Set the scene for us. What was this commander like? Was he expecting you? How did it start?

REP. BILL RICHARDSON: He was expecting me but they had no communications there, no way to communicate even by walkie-talkie. It’s a village of 35,000, a guerrilla camp. When you land there, you’re greeted by women and men without clothes but with automatic weapons. You’re greeted by 11-year-old children with automatic weapons. You go into the guerrilla camp. You negotiate under a tree. Commander Karabino, a dinka, a very tall people, very thin, was the liaison that was supposed to negotiate with me. He had a reputation of being extremely tough, volatile, had killed many people. He was somebody that was described by the Red Cross workers as totally unpredictable. Other than that, I looked forward to this negotiation. But we sat down and started negotiating. He was tough, but he was–basically he said that he had been promised $2.5 million ransom for the three hostages; he’d been given some humanitarian aid; but he wanted the money. And I explained to him that there is no ransom paid either by the Red Cross and most nations don’t pay ransom for hostages, otherwise, they would happen all the time. So for four hours, we went back and forth. I tried to related to him personally.

One of the things you try to do in dealing with pariah types is at least show them respect, listen. He unloaded on U.S. policy toward Sudan. In essence, we have an embargo against them. And he said that it’s the rural people that bear the brunt of it. But he wanted an understanding for the United States. He wanted us to listen. And so he saw me as an American coming to him, so he was making his point. But for four hours, we got nowhere. The Sudanese government, which also has a very rock relationship with us, as it should, then intervened, helped me, but what sealed the deal in the end was the fact that hundreds of children in that camp had been dying of measles and cholera. They have no medical attention. And I said instead of the $2.5 million, let’s have some vaccines, some immunizations, some health care workers. Let’s deal with the humanitarian aspect. He wouldn’t budge, but when I threatened to leave and said, this is it, all the other items on the Red Cross list that had been promised you, jeeps, radios, food, rice, are off the table, then he started getting serious.

MARGARET WARNER: Had–a couple of his own children, I read somewhere, had also died in this?

REP. BILL RICHARDSON: Yes. A couple–two days before I arrived, his daughter died–two years old–of measles. And he told me at one point in the negotiation that he had a son four years old that he thought was going to die. And I asked to see the son. And in the end, I said, you want fuel, you want weapons, yet, you’ve got children dying, your own children. Your number two Commander Faustino tells me he lost four. Why don’t we shift the focus of what you need towards humanitarian matters, and with a little help from the Sudanese government, a little bluff and bluster and humor, we pulled it out. The American hostage, the Australian hostage were already in bad physical shape. They had been there 36 days and were depressed.

MARGARET WARNER: And where were they kept?

REP. BILL RICHARDSON: They were kept about 100 yards away in a thatched hut, almost in the open air, guarded incessantly, and they were not in good health. They were depressed. They felt that they had been abandoned. And when they saw me, you heard some cheers. And that’s what makes some of these rescue efforts worth it–to see their faces, going home, and ending their ordeal.

MARGARET WARNER: And then you all flew out together?

REP. BILL RICHARDSON: We flew out together. Again, another rockety ride for three hours to the capital of Khartoum. And then by U.S. Air Force plane we flew immediately to Geneva, where they were reunited with their employer, the Red Cross, and their families.

MARGARET WARNER: Now when Americans get in trouble in these hostile countries, it seems that you’re called in to help. Why do they call you? How did you get into this?

REP. BILL RICHARDSON: Well, I’ve had experience before. It’s like a domino effect. Sometimes the State Department and the White House ask me to get involved. Other times families ask me to get involved. Pariah governments–I’ve kind of been called the undersecretary of thugs. Get in touch with me. My wife says–

MARGARET WARNER: Iraq, North Korea.

REP. BILL RICHARDSON: –I relate well to dictators but not common people. But apart from that, you kind of build a reputation, and people come to you. I don’t seek these out, but in this case, it was a constituent. It was somebody from New Mexico, the pilot, whose family got me involved.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think because you’re not actually an official of the administration, I mean, you’re a congressman, but that you have more flexibility?

REP. BILL RICHARDSON: Yes. That helps. The fact that there’s deniability on both sides. Let me say that my missions could not succeed without the help of the White House and State Department. And I think President Clinton has supported me in all of them, but there are some times when they want a little bit of hands off for me, and I want hands off from them, I want to be able to say things that a diplomat cannot say. In fact, our State Department, our diplomats cannot go to North Korea or Cuba or Iraq or some of these places that I’ve been to. Sudan is a problem. So I always clear my visits with the State Department. You can’t have lone rangers that have different agendas. And this is why some of these missions have worked. I’ve benefited from the expertise of a lot of top State Department people that know the characters of these individuals. The U.S. ambassador was physically with me in Sudan, Tim Kearney, and it shows a united effort on the part of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Quickly, before we go, there is a lot of speculation that you may become an administration official, perhaps Secretary of Commerce or UN Ambassador. Are you interested?

REP. BILL RICHARDSON: Well, the President talked to me last night, and let’s say that I’m very happy where I am. Let’s say also that I’m ready for any discussion, but there’s been no offer. I’m obviously dodging your question, so we’ll end it at that.

MARGARET WARNER: Very adroitly. Thank you, Congressman, very much.