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Civil Rights Leader Meets U.S. POWs

April 30, 1999

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ In their first public remarks since they were captured a month ago, three U.S. soldiers held prisoner by Yugoslavia told Jesse Jackson of their days of isolation, separated in one-room cells. ``Sorry I put you through so much pain and agony,″ one said Friday in a message to his family.

Meeting individually with Jackson and his companions, who flew to Belgrade in an attempt to win their release, the soldiers were in their camouflage uniforms and still showed cuts and bruises they suffered when seized March 31.

Assistant Foreign Minister Nebojsa Vujovic said their release wasn’t ``on the agenda.″ Jackson was expected to meet Saturday with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Mich., was the first soldier to meet with Jackson. A fading bruise on his forehead is ``a mark from our capture,″ he said in pool video of the soldiers, approved by Serb censors.

He appeared tired, and his eyes welled with tears as he sent his love to his wife, Tricia, and 4-year-old son, Ryan.

Spc. Steven M. Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas, apologized to his family: ``Sorry I put you through so much pain and agony.″

The soldiers _ seen on Serb TV with battered faces shortly after their capture _ also included Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles. He sent wishes to his family before his interview was cut off as air raid sirens sounded.

The three were in good health and received enough food and regular exercise, but had not been allowed to meet with any Westerners until a visit by International Red Cross officials this week.

A new round of Russian-led diplomacy showed little sign of a breakthrough, meanwhile, with special envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin and Milosevic holding talks for six hours but unable to overcome the major obstacles to a settlement.

Those include Belgrade’s rejection of an armed international peacekeeping force _ with NATO at its core _ and NATO’s insistence that the bombing will continue as long as Yugoslav forces expel ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia’s main republic, Serbia.

The three U.S. soldiers, captured along the Yugoslavia-Macedonia border, were ``very glad to see us, physically very healthy″ and showed ``a great sense of dignity,″ Jackson said.

``Our country should be proud of them,″ the civil rights leader said.

Jackson said he brought the men ``letters from family members, their wives and spouses ... bibles and some other religious paraphernalia,″ noting ``it has been for them a long, dark night.″

Vivian Ramirez told CNN she was pleased to hear that her son appeared to be in good condition and was praying he would ``be home soon.″

The Pentagon welcomed Jackson’s visit. ``The contact with the Reverend Jackson is helpful to the POWs, and it’s a good sign,″ spokesman Kenneth Bacon said. He called on Belgrade to release the servicemen immediately.

Hours before Jackson’s arrival Thursday, the alliance launched its fiercest attack on the Yugoslav capital since NATO airstrikes began March 24.

Assistant Foreign Minister Nebojsa Vujovic, meanwhile, condemned the bombings of Belgrade and a residential neighborhood as ``the newest NATO madness,″ saying at least three civilians were killed and 40 were injured in the Vracar district a mile from army headquarters.

Jackson toured the scene, watching an elderly man stumble through the wreckage of his house and poking through kitchen pots and jars of pickled vegetables somehow untouched by the blasts.

``Bombing cannot be a solution,″ said Jackson, visibly touched by the destruction. ``But the same goes for the forceful displacement of ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo.″

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, people staggered through the wreckage and one car lay crushed under massive chunks of concrete.

``One missile bomb went astray and landed on some houses,″ NATO spokesman Jamie Shea acknowledged.

NATO said more than 600 sorties took place in the previous 24 hours, the busiest period yet in the war over Kosovo, helped by a doubling of allied aircraft sent to the region _ including 10 U.S. B-52 bombers _ and good weather.

NATO launched the air campaign to force Milosevic to accept a peace deal for Kosovo, a province of Serbia with a prewar ethnic Albanian majority among its population of 2 million people.

More than 600,000 ethnic Albanian refugees have fled Kosovo and marauding Serb forces since NATO’s air campaign began; hundreds of thousands more are homeless and displaced in the province.

Adding to the jitters was a moderate earthquake that shook Belgrade just before dawn, causing no casualties but upsetting residents hours after the NATO bombardment. The Serbian Seismological Institute said the epicenter of the 5.5-magniture quake was 37 miles south of Belgrade.

One of Milosevic’s official residences was again hit, NATO said. Milosevic’s luxurious home in a Belgrade suburb was struck by three missiles last week but the Yugoslav leader is believed to stay in different bunkers each night.

Shea also reported ethnic cleansings taking place for the first time ``in Serbia proper,″ just east of Kosovo’s provincial border in Preshevo.

Russian envoy Chernomyrdin, after his talks with Milosevic, insisted ``some progress″ was being made in his peace efforts, pointing to Belgrade’s acceptance of an international presence in Kosovo, even if it did fall short of the armed peacekeeping force NATO demands.

``I hope that leaders of the NATO member countries will take that progress seriously, but I cannot say that they will make a positive decision,″ Chernomyrdin was quoted by ITAR-Tass news agency as saying.

In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson denounced atrocities committed by Serb forces but also strongly criticized the NATO bombings.

``Large numbers of civilians have been incontestably killed, civilian installations targeted on the basis that they are or could be of military application, and NATO remains the sole judge of what is or is not acceptable to bomb,″ she said.

She cited Yugoslav government figures that claim 500 civilians had been killed by NATO airstrikes. NATO has acknowledged about 112 deaths caused by at least three errant bombings.

A resolution expressing concern over the humanitarian crisis was put before the Security Council on Friday, backed by the 113-member Non-Aligned Movement. But Russia and China were said to be opposed to the draft because it focuses more on the plight of refugees than victims of NATO’s bombing campaign.

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