Yugoslavia Hands Over 3 Captured U.S. Soldiers
President Slobodan Milosevic freed three captured U.S. Army soldiers today and sent them homeward with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had lobbied for their release as a step toward ending 39 days of NATO bombing.
The soldiers were brought to the Yugoslav army press center in downtown Belgrade on the 33rd day of their captivity and turned over to Jackson’s delegation of American religious leaders.
The leaders, seated across a large room, stood and applauded as the soldiers were led in to witness a formal signing of their release by Lt. Gen. Blagoje Kovacevic, the Yugoslav army’s deputy chief of staff.
“We welcome you to bombed Belgrade,” the general told the delegation and the three soldiers. Then Jackson crossed the room and embraced the three, thanking “God’s mercy and grace” for their freedom. He added: “Let nations not rise up against nations.”
Jackson handed his cellular telephone to the soldiers so they could call their families. Army Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smith’s Creek, Mich., cried and smiled as he spoke. Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, 24, of East Los Angeles, wiped his eyes when he got his turn. Jackson, seated beside him, was also in tears.
Stone, Ramirez and the third soldier, Army Spc. Steven Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas, each made statements to the Yugoslav officials.
Ramirez said: “I’d like to thank the Yugoslav government for our treatment. It was very good, very fair. Hopefully, now everyone will be free and there will be peace.”
After the statements, the trio boarded a bus with the religious delegation, bound for the 90-minute drive to the Croatian border, then on to the capital, Zagreb. From there, they were to fly to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
The soldiers’ release, two days after a Russian peace initiative stalled, was Milosevic’s most dramatic gesture since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched its air offensive to counter his military’s assault on ethnic Albanians in the nation’s Kosovo province.
Milosevic made the decision Saturday after meeting with the American civil rights leader for three hours and then with his own advisors. The Yugoslav leader set no conditions on the soldiers’ freedom but gave Jackson a letter to President Clinton requesting a face-to-face meeting.
“The president took the decision in support of Jesse Jackson’s peace efforts,” Tanjug, the state news agency, reported. “We do not see them as enemies but victims of war and militarism.”
Yugoslavia failed to capture another prisoner early today when the pilot of an F-16 jet was rescued by allied forces after his plane went down over western Serbia.
The unidentified pilot was undergoing a medical examination at an allied base, Lt. Col. Michael Kaemnerer said at NATO military headquarters in Brussels. An investigation into the cause of the crash was ongoing.
Before the departure for Belgrade of Jackson and his delegation--which included Dr. Nazir Uddin Khaja of the American Muslim Council and Rabbi Steven Bennett Jacobs, both from Los Angeles--Clinton had sought to discourage their trip.
In Belgrade, Jackson urged both sides to “seize this moment” and step up diplomatic efforts to end the conflict over the ethnic Albanian majority’s demands for autonomy for Kosovo--a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia’s dominant republic.
NATO, he said, should halt its bombing long enough to assess Milosevic’s move and get the soldiers safely out of the country. “Give [Yugoslavia] a night of peace from bombs,” he added.
But Serbian media reported that NATO kept up its raids overnight, with targets including an oil refinery in the northern city of Novi Sad, a factory in the central Serbian town of Cacak, two bridges in central Serbia and an area near the airport, just west of Belgrade. Belgrade itself was spared.
During the previous 24 hours, NATO forces had pounded Yugoslavia with another storm of airstrikes, knocking out key communications sites to frustrate Milosevic’s control of Serbian troops who have escalated the “ethnic cleansing” of Prizren, Kosovo’s second-largest city.
The bombing raids targeted Serbian forces throughout the embattled province, destroying tanks, armored vehicles, fielded artillery and command posts as well as vital links in the government’s radio relay network and seven bridges on important supply routes in or near Kosovo, NATO spokesman Peter Daniel said in Brussels.
After striking Friday at the heart of Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, with the bombing of army and police headquarters buildings, NATO went after “the nervous system” to disrupt communications between the capital and the 40,000 Serbian troops fighting guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army and brutalizing ethnic Albanians in the province, Daniel said.
“The military radio relay network is essential to Milosevic’s ability to direct and control the repressive activities of his army and special police forces in Kosovo,” Daniel said. “Every day, because of this, Milosevic is less and less able to stay in touch with his forces and keep them supplied.”
About 600 sorties were flown, matching the previous day’s record for intensity since the air attacks began March 24.
At the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Charles Wald called the overnight assaults “the best day of bombing we’ve had since the start of the campaign.”
Indicating that the Serbian nationalist campaign to drive the Kosovo Albanians from their homes has escalated amid the intensified airstrikes, on Saturday more than 20,000 refugees poured over the borders into Albania and Macedonia, where refugee camps already are teeming and threatened with epidemics of disease.
Refugees massed at the Albanian border station at Morine in such numbers--6,200 on Saturday and twice that the day before--that authorities filled all their existing encampments. They erected a giant tent in the center of the city of Kukes to house several hundred refugees, but many were forced to sleep Saturday night in the open.
At the same time, 7,200 ethnic Albanians fleeing Yugoslavia arrived in Macedonia, bringing the two-day total there to more than 15,000, according to Paula Ghedini, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“It’s been a solid 5,000 to 8,000 a day,” Ghedini said. “Who know’s what’s coming tomorrow?”
In other developments related to the NATO assaults:
* Clinton signed an executive order strengthening an American trade embargo against Yugoslavia. Under this order, the United States will ban exports of petroleum and other strategic goods to Yugoslavia and will freeze all of the latter’s property in the U.S.
* Russian envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin insisted in Moscow that his efforts to mediate the Kosovo conflict are yielding results. Chernomyrdin briefed President Boris N. Yeltsin on his trip, and the president reportedly expressed his approval.
* Mortar and artillery fire from Kosovo rained down into Albania near Morine, observers there with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported. NATO officials warned that Serbian forces suspected of having shelled the border region should immediately cease the hostile action or face unspecified consequences.
* In the republic of Montenegro, Serbia’s junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, the pro-Western government responded with anger to a NATO bomb attack that killed four civilians in the small town of Murino during an attempt late last week to destroy a bridge. “We accept that NATO has the necessity to cut all roads leading to Kosovo,” said Radomir Sekulovic, a government spokesman. “But why are you doing it at the most populated area, when there are three or four places you can do it without killing civilians?”
* NATO forces have captured a second Yugoslav soldier and are holding him in Germany, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Lane Van de Steeg said in Washington. Van de Steeg said he did not know the rank of the Yugoslav officer or the circumstances of his capture. The captive has received a visit from representatives of the International Red Cross, he said.
Jackson’s delegation arrived in Belgrade on Thursday for a second attempt to win the freedom of the soldiers, who were were seized during a peacekeeping patrol along the Yugoslav-Macedonian border March 31, a week after NATO started bombing.
Spyros Kyprianou, speaker of Cyprus’ parliament, abandoned his attempt April 9, saying it had been thwarted by continued NATO bombing.
Jackson met and embraced the soldiers Friday in a military judge’s chambers in Belgrade and prayed with them. His mission appeared doomed, however, when a government spokesman said their freedom was “not on the agenda.”
Undaunted, Jackson appealed directly to Milosevic, clasping the Yugoslav strongman’s hand during their inconclusive meeting Saturday.
Only after leaving the meeting was Jackson told of Milosevic’s decision and asked to carry a letter to Clinton. Jackson said the letter conveys Milosevic’s wish to meet with Clinton and “take this matter to resolution” along with an appeal that NATO halt the bombing because it is “traumatizing the people.”
Milosevic is a master tactician with a flair for unexpected moves. Whether his mercy for the American soldiers means a willingness to compromise on Kosovo is not clear.
The alliance has said it will keep bombing until Milosevic accepts a Western-dictated autonomy deal for Kosovo, a return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees, withdrawal of the Yugoslav troops who drove them out, and 28,000 NATO peacekeeping troops to enforce the arrangement.
Boudreaux reported from Belgrade and Williams from Brussels. Contributing to this report were Times staff writers David Holley in Podgorica, Yugoslavia; Elizabeth Shogren in Skopje, Macedonia; Marc Lacey in Kukes; Maura Reynolds in Moscow; and Matea Gold and Nancy Trejos in Los Angeles.
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