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Clinton To Milosevic: Free Soldiers

April 1, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton pledged today that the United States will do everything in its power to gain the return of three Army soldiers captured near the Yugoslav-Macedonia border, and he warned Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that ``the United States takes care of its own.″

``President Milosevic should make no mistake: We will hold him and his government responsible for their safety and their well-being,″ Clinton said to emotional applause from service members gathered in a hangar at Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia.

Shortly before Clinton spoke, Yugoslav state-controlled television announced that the three soldiers would face criminal proceedings before a military court on Friday.

``There was absolutely no basis for them to be taken,″ Clinton said. ``There is no basis for them to be held. There is certainly no basis for them to be tried.″

The Pentagon, meanwhile, announced today that Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered 13 F-117A stealth fighters dispatched to the region this weekend, adding to 11 of the radar-evading planes already operating over Yugoslavia. One is a replacement for the F-117A that was apparently shot down Saturday near Belgrade.

The new fighters bring the U.S. total aircraft to 220 out of 400 NATO warplanes.

As for the captured soldiers, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said the investigation was continuing to determine exactly who abducted them and from where they were taken. Meanwhile, he asserted, ``at a minimum, they are entitled to POW status″ or immediate release.

The three soldiers, shown on Serbian television, are cavalry scouts who reported coming under fire before losing radio contact and disappearing for several hours.

Word of the military trial came today from Yugoslavia’s state news agency. The United States reacted with outrage. Any trial ``would be in violation of international law,″ State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said today. ``Such a trial is obviously ridiculous.″

The Pentagon backed away from initial assertions that the soldiers had not crossed into Yugoslav territory. Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that possibility was now being investigated, and he suggested that the three may have inadvertently crossed the border while fleeing from a Serb ambush.

Clinton forcefully defended his decision to use military force against Yugoslavia and sought to give the mission importance beyond the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Kosovo.

``This is something we are doing to try to avoid in the 21st century, the kind of widespread war, large American casualties and heartbreak that we saw too much of in the century we are about to leave,″ Clinton said. ``So this is not just about a small piece of the Balkans.″

Clinton, who met with families of service members before his speech, pledged to stay the course in Yugoslavia, despite the dangers.

``The mission I have asked our armed forces to carry out with our NATO allies is a dangerous one,″ Clinton said. ``We will continue to carry out our mission with determination and resolve.″

At a news conference shortly before Clinton’s speech, Defense Secretary William Cohen said it was not yet clear how the soldiers fell into Serb hands. When asked if they were prisoners of war, Cohen said: ``Their status is that of being illegally detained.

``We will do everything in our power to secure their safe return,″ Cohen said.

Asked whether the United States would try to rescue the soldiers, Shelton, appearing with Cohen in Norfolk, said ``we have some initiatives that are ongoing,″ but he would not provide more details.

``Whether or not they later had escaped from that and had driven in the wrong direction, or whether they were fleeing on foot, we did not know,″ said Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. ``We knew they were missing.″

Pentagon officials strongly discounted the possibility of a military rescue mission because of the risks involved.

Other U.S. and NATO officials demanded that the three soldiers receive humane treatment in captivity.

``We’re very concerned about the safety and welfare of the three soldiers who were abducted by Serb forces,″ U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the top NATO commander, said today. ``We’ve all seen their pictures. We don’t like it. We don’t like the way they’re treated, and we have a long memory about these kinds of things.″

At the same news conference, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said Yugoslav authorities had been reminded, through diplomatic channels, of their obligation to provide humane treatment for the soldiers.

Clark said the men reported by radio that they were surrounded. ``The radio transmission was cut off and they disappeared for several hours,″ Clark said. ``The next we saw, they were badly beaten up there and shown on television in Belgrade.″

The Pentagon identified the three as Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles; Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Mich.; and Spc. Steven M. Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas. Their families have been notified.

``We’re pretty much in shock,″ Stone’s father, Jim Stone, told the Times Herald of Port Huron, Mich., today. ``We didn’t know anything that was going on.″

Earlier, Capt. John Clearwater, spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division in Germany, confirmed the men were from his division.

``The great news is the fact that these soldiers are alive and well and appear to be healthy,″ Clearwater told The Associated Press by telephone from the unit’s base at Wurzburg, Germany.

``That has been the greatest relief to the families and the other soldiers at the base.″

Clearwater said he had no information on the circumstances of their capture. The Serbian television images showed three U.S. servicemen in combat fatigues and in apparent good shape, although at least one had abrasions on his face.

Even before official acknowledgment that the three missing men had been captured, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said at a news conference in Brussels, Belgium that they were part of a peacekeeping mission in Macedonia that posed ``absolutely no threat to Yugoslavia.″

``Any soldiers that happen under any circumstance to be captured by the Yugoslav armed forces must be treated in a humane way in accordance with international civilized norms of behavior,″ Shea said. ``NATO fully expects this to happen.″

Until their capture was confirmed, a multinational force had been conducting an intensive search for them along the Yugoslavia-Macedonia border.

The captured Army team had been on a daytime reconnaissance mission in the Kumanovo area, about three miles from the southern Yugoslavia border when they reported ``they received small-arms fire and said they were surrounded,″ according to NATO.

``No more was heard from the patrol,″ a NATO statement said.

NATO officials didn’t say who had the soldiers surrounded, but Pentagon officials said it was presumed to be Serb Army, paramilitary, police or perhaps angry citizens.

The urgent radio calls for help came between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Macedonia time (7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. EST), the Pentagon said. When the other reconnaissance teams from the Army’s 1st Infantry Division headquartered in Wurzburg failed to find their colleagues, they radioed their commanders for help, according to the Pentagon.

An immediate rescue mission was launched, involving ground and helicopter teams from several NATO countries and the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps based in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, U.S. officials said. Searchers included 80 to 90 soldiers on U.S., British, French and Italian helicopters.

Searchers were unable to find the missing team’s Humvee vehicle, which had been traveling on a civilian road during part of the reconnaissance mission, U.S. officials said.

The missing team was one of several Army units guarding the border during the ongoing NATO airstrikes against the Serb military, now in their second week.

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