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European edition, Saturday, May 19, 2007

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Air Force is looking for the families of 72 deceased Americans repatriated from a cemetery near a former American military base in Libya.

In a surprising display of how relations between the U.S. and Libya have warmed, American military cargo planes were allowed to land in the country last March to transport the remains to Dover Air Force Base, Del.

The American dead are believed to be family members of airmen once stationed at Wheelus Air Base, home to B-52 bombers from 1958 to 1972. The remains, some of them nearly 50 years old, include 70 infants and two adults.

Plans to reduce the size of the cemetery prompted the transfer. Air Force officials did not release information on the repatriation until now due to the State Department’s concern over the fragile, yet improving relationship between the two countries.

The military has set up a hotline and has reached out to Wheelus High School alumni in hopes of tracking down family members. Air Force Mortuary Affairs officials declined to be interviewed for this story and would only answer questions by e-mail. The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli did not return phone calls or e-mails.

“While some families have been located and notified, this is an enormous task considering the limited information that we have available to work with,” the Air Force’s Mortuary Affairs office wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes. “Since all of the cemetery records were handwritten with only limited information recorded, it will take some time to ensure we locate the next-of-kin.”

Wheelus, which was located just east of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast, served as a U.S. Air Force base until Moammar Gadhafi ousted the king in 1969. The Italian military used to run the cemetery and offered free plots to Americans stationed at Wheelus when the Air Force used the base.

A team of three mortuary affairs specialists accompanied by a financial specialist spent two weeks in February recovering the remains with the help of locally contracted workers.

A C-130 transport plane assigned to the 86th Airlift Wing’s 37th Airlift Squadron flew the dead to Ramstein Air Base, where they were transferred to a C-5 cargo plane and sent to Dover.

“The mission to recover U.S. remains from the cemetery in Libya was absolutely the right thing to do, and the 86th Airlift Wing was proud to have a role,” Brig. Gen. Richard Johnston, the 86th commander, said in a written statement to Stars and Stripes. “The government of Libya was very helpful in facilitating this humanitarian effort, and we appreciate their cooperation which allowed the United States to make that happen.”

The remains will remain at Dover Air Force Base until family members can be contacted. If the families cannot be contacted, the military will bury them at a federal or state cemetery near the air base, the Air Force said.

Relations between the U.S. and Libya had been confrontational for a span of nearly three decades up until several years ago.

The U.S. government restored diplomatic relations to Libya last year after the North African country renounced its support of terrorism and agreed to give up its weapons of mass destruction.

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