LUSAKA, Zambia -- Three relieved Americans headed home today after their release from jail in Marxist Angola, part of an intricate international swap that involved the Soviet Union, Cuba and South Africa.
'I couldn't believe it's really true,' Joyce Acker, the mother of convicted mercenary Gary Acker, said Tuesday in Sacramento, Calif. The former U.S. Marine at one time was sentenced to a firing squad.
The three Americans were freed Tuesday at Lusaka airport in a swap for three Russians, a Cuban and 94 Angolan soldiers held by anti-communist Angolan rebels. The Angolans also returned the bodies of three South African troops.
All three Americans appeared healthy, clean-shaven and wore clean clothes, witnesses said. They flew to Paris aboard a French UTA flight shortly after the exchange formalities were completed and were to fly to New York today.
The prisoner exchange, arranged through the International Red Cross, was regarded as the biggest and most complex in 16 years of guerrilla warfare in southern Africa.
In Washington, State Department officials said the exchange 'is an example of what can be accomplished by all the parties working together' in southern Africa.
Acker, 28, of Sacramento, Calif., and Gus Grillo, 32, of Bricktown, N.J., were convicted six years ago by a People's Tribunal in Luanda, Angola, of fighting as mercenaries with anti-government forces. They were sentenced to 30 years imprisonment.
The third American, Geoffrey Tyler, 32, a Florida businessman and private pilot from Seabrooke, Md., was detained last year when forced to make an emergency landing in Angola while ferrying a plane to South Africa.
Acker's family said the Marxist Angolan government initially sentenced Acker to die before a firing squad, then spared him because he was 21 at the time of his capture.
He was among those receiving the lightest sentences of 13 mercenaries denounced by the court as 'dogs of war with bloodstained muzzles.' Four of his comrades were ordered to face a firing squad.
The three Americans were flown by Red Cross plane from Luanda to Lusaka Tuesday and waited tensely in the VIP lounge for several hours for the arrival of the Russians and the Angolan troops from South Africa.
The State Department said it was unclear how and where the two U.S. mercenaries had been recruited.
If they were signed up within the borders of the United States, they could be subject to prosecution under the Neutrality Act and face up to a $1,000 fine and three years in jail.