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Bush Apologizes for Death of S. Korean Schoolgirls - 2002-11-27

President Bush has apologized for the deaths of two South Korean schoolgirls, killed by U.S. soldiers in a road accident. The American ambassador in Seoul conveyed the apology in a bid to stem public anger after two servicemen were cleared of criminal negligence by U.S. military courts.

At a press conference in Seoul, U.S. Ambassador, Thomas Hubbard said President Bush had sent a message to apologize to the families of the two schoolgirls, to the South Korean government and to the people of the country. "He asked me to express, and here I quote, his 'sadness and regret' over this tragic incident and to reiterate the United States' commitment to work closely with the Republic of Korea to help prevent such accidents from occurring in the future," the ambassador said.

Sergeants Mark Walker and Fernando Nino were each cleared of two counts of negligent homicide in separate trials held by the U.S. military last week. The soldiers were in charge of a 50-ton armored vehicle that crushed the two 14-year-old girls during a training mission in June.

In a statement Wednesday, the two servicemen also sent their condolences to the families of the victims.

Sergeant Nino, who was navigating the vehicle at the time of the accident, said he realized nothing that he could do would bring the girls back, but he hoped the families would accept his deepest apology. He said even though it was an accident, he would have to live with the anguish of knowing that two people died.

Sergeant Walker, who was driving the vehicle in June, said that everyday he wished there was something he could do to change what happened and bring back the two girls.

During Wednesday's press conference, the commander of the U.S. forces in South Korea, General Leon Laporte, said measures had been introduced to avoid more accidents. "Although we conduct training as safely as we can, we are only human," he said. "Sometimes accidents happen, and the consequences of those accidents are grave. We have taken a number of definitive actions since June 13 to ensure an accident similar to the accident on highway 57 does not happen again."

The apologies may defuse anger in South Korea, caused by the acquittal of the two soldiers. There have been demonstrations against the U.S. presence in the country and calls for Seoul to renegotiate the agreement with the United States that gives the U.S. army jurisdiction over soldiers who commit crimes while on duty.

The United States has maintained a military presence in South Korea since the Korean War ended in an armistice nearly 50 years ago. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war, and successive South Korea governments have requested that U.S. troops remain to help deter another conflict.