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Clinton, US journalists home safe from NKorea

Bill Clinton and two freed US journalists arrived back safely from North Korea on Wednesday after the former president secured their release on a historic trip to the reclusive state.

world Updated: Aug 05, 2009 20:08 IST

Bill Clinton and two freed US journalists arrived back safely from North Korea on Wednesday after the former president secured their release on a historic trip to the reclusive state.

Clinton's chartered plane touched down at Burbank, California shortly before 6:00 am local time (1300 GMT), bringing to an end the four-month prison ordeal of TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

A mobile stairway carried a "Welcome Home" banner greeting 32-year old Ling and 36-year-old Lee as hundreds of journalists gathered in a cavernous private hangar at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport.

Ling and Lee, who faced 12 years' hard labor before they were pardoned by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, were headed for a reunion with overjoyed family members following Clinton's surprise mission -- the highest-level American trip to North Korea in almost a decade.

A senior US official said the journalists were in "very good health" after 140 days in detention.

"We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms," relatives said in a statement thanking Clinton and the current administration.

"This is one of the happiest days of my life," Laura Ling's father Doug told CNN.

Despite months of high tensions sparked by the North's nuclear and missile tests and United Nations sanctions, Clinton received a warm and well publicized welcome in Pyongyang Tuesday.

"Leading papers today carry a photo-accompanied report that leader Kim Jong-Il met with former US President Bill Clinton on a visit to the DPRK (North Korea)," the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.

The press also publicised a dinner in Clinton's honor, which according to KCNA "proceeded in a cordial atmosphere."

Striking a markedly positive tone, the agency said Clinton's meetings "reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement" of issues dividing the two countries."

TV journalists Ling and Lee were arrested while reporting near North Korea's border with China. They were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and "hostile acts."

Kim agreed to pardon them after Clinton "expressed words of sincere apology" for their "hostile acts," KCNA, reported late Tuesday.

After Kim granted his special pardon, Clinton "courteously conveyed a verbal message of US President Barack Obama expressing profound thanks for this and reflecting views on ways of improving the relations between the two countries," the agency said.

The White House portrayed the mission as a purely private one and denied there was any
message from Obama. A senior US official said separately that Clinton had offered no such apology.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wife of the former leader, said during a visit to Africa she was "very happy and relieved" the reporters had been freed.

"The future of our relationships with the North Koreans are really up to them," Clinton told reporters.

"They have a choice if they continue to follow the path that is filled with provocative action, which further isolates them from the international community... or they can decide
to renew their discussions with the partners in the six-party talks."

While he was president Clinton sent his own secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000 for a meeting with leader Kim.

The harsh sentences on the reporters had soured relations already strained by the North's atomic test in May, multiple missile launches and its decision to quit the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.

South Korean officials and US say Kim, 67, is staging a show of strength while he puts in place a succession plan involving his youngest son.

Kim reportedly suffered a stroke last August and appears notably older, thinner and frailer in recent photos -- including those taken with Clinton.