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Captured U.S. Soldiers To Be Tried

April 2, 1999

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ NATO used its air assaults to tighten a ring around Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, where Serbs were packing masses of ethnic Albanians into refugee trains so tightly that at least two people died. Three U.S. soldiers captured by the army faced charges by a military court.

A Vatican envoy traveled to Belgrade to urge an end to the airstrikes, but the Western alliance said the bombardment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s forces would proceed as long as necessary.

Allied attacks destroyed a bridge over the Danube River and struck at Yugoslav military units in Kosovo as the NATO campaign to halt the eradication of independence-minded ethnic Albanians in the breakaway province reached its ninth day.

``The ring is closing around the Yugoslav forces,″ NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said Thursday.

State-run Serbian television, meanwhile, claimed that Yugoslav forces had cleaned out key strongholds of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.

Two trains jammed with more than 10,000 refugees arrived Thursday at the Macedonian border, where U.N. refugee officials described scenes of pandemonium.

``People were ... crammed on to the train like sardines,″ said Judith Kumin, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. ``Two old people died in the crush and three women gave birth.″

NATO officials contend the Serbs are trying to forever alter the ethnic makeup of Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia, the main republic in Yugoslavia. More than 180,000 refugees have overwhelmed Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro in the past week, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

Meanwhile, the three grim-faced U.S. soldiers, part of a NATO peacekeeping force, were shown on Serbian television dressed in camouflage, with dirt or abrasions on their faces.

The Pentagon identified the men 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.

The Tanjug state news agency reported the three would face military court proceedings Friday. The charges were not immediately known.

The Yugoslav army said the three men, missing since Wednesday, were captured in Yugoslavia. But NATO’s top military officer, U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, said it was unclear exactly where they were seized.

``We’ve all seen their pictures. We don’t like it,″ he said in Brussels, Belgium. ``We don’t like the way they’re treated and we have a long memory about these kinds of things.″

NATO earlier said the soldiers were in Macedonia, about three miles from the Yugoslav border, when they reported being surrounded and under small arms fire before losing radio contact.

President Clinton said the United States will hold Milosevic responsible for the safety of the three.

Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic said the soldiers would be treated in compliance with the Geneva Convention on war prisoners.

The United States initially branded the capture an illegal abduction, but later Thursday Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon called the soldiers ``prisoners of war,″ raising the specter that they could be held until the end of hostilities.

A State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that under a protocol of the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war cannot be tried for their military functions unless they commit a war crime.

But the U.S. Senate never ratified the relevant protocol, according to the official, creating a possible loophole through which the Yugoslavs could order a trial.

In Belgrade, Milosevic met with ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who called for peace. But the Yugoslav leader remained defiant, saying his country ``is leading a just battle, defending its citizens ... and will never give up its land and freedom.″

The meeting with Rugova was denounced by other ethnic Albanian leaders, but it was not clear whether he was speaking freely.

Confusion surrounded the fate of two other leading Kosovo Albanians who U.S. diplomats said may be alive days after NATO reported they had been executed by Serbs.

NATO spokesman Air Commodore David Wilby told a news conference Monday he had reports from ``reliable sources″ that five prominent ethnic Albanians were executed Sunday, including Fehmi Agani, a negotiator at the recent peace talks in France, and newspaper editor Baton Haxihi.

But U.S. diplomats at NATO headquarters said Wednesday their sources indicate the two men are still alive.

In Moscow, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said the Kosovo crisis could lead to disaster. He appealed to the Group of Seven nations to stop the airstrikes and considered sending more Russia warships to the Mediterranean, after his government announced a Russian naval vessel would depart for the region Friday.

Solana and Clark, both expressed satisfaction with the bombing campaign that began March 24 to try to stop the carnage in Kosovo.

``President Milosevic will have to listen to NATO’s message,″ Solana said. ``As our pressure increases he will be forced to stop his aggression. NATO will stop only when he stops.″

Clark said the missile and bombing raids hit targets all over Yugoslavia, particularly air defenses, communications networks, military compounds and Serb forces carrying out attacks in Kosovo.

But he acknowledged that NATO air power alone cannot stop alleged Serb atrocities being committed on the ground. He said it was up to NATO’s political leaders to decide how to respond.

``It’s a grim combination of terror and ethnic cleansing on a vast scale that’s being perpetrated largely against defenseless civilians,″ Clark said. ``Man does not do this to his fellow man.″

Yugoslav authorities call the NATO bombing a violation of international law, and they claim refugees are fleeing Kosovo because of NATO attacks.

The NATO aerial bombardment continued, hampered by poor weather that officials said prevents some planes from carrying out their sorties.

Serbian media reported Thursday that NATO missiles destroyed a major bridge over the Danube River in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia’s second largest city. Video footage on Serbian state television showed the remnants of the destroyed bridge, which connects two parts of the city. It said the city’s water system was heavily damaged. No casualties were reported.

At least eight cruise missiles were fired from U.S. ships in the Adriatic about midnight Thursday, and the Pentagon dispatched a dozen F-117A stealth fighters to the region earlier in the day to join 11 other radar-evading planes already operating over Yugoslavia.

Serbian TV showed footage of what it said were abandoned KLA strongholds _ mostly houses fortified with sandbags _ in Dragobilje, Ovcarevo, Obrinje, Prekaz, Lapasnica, Pagarusa, Malisevo and Cicavica.

Dragobilje is where U.S. envoys met KLA leaders for negotiations during the past year. Prekaz was one of the birthplaces of the rebellion.

But KLA leader Jakup Krasniqi said Thursday on ABC’s ``Nightline″ that the rebels are fighting back. ``We are sure that in the next few days the KLA will undertake an offensive and will show its military strength and its ability to defend ... Kosovo.″

Also Thursday, the emissary of Pope John Paul II, French Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, met with Milosevic and called for the NATO attacks to halt in time for Easter. NATO officials previously ruled out suspending the bombing campaign for Easter observations.

Religious leaders in the United States made similar appeals. Catholic prelates sent a joint letter to Clinton and Milosevic, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson contacted Clinton and five Serbian Orthodox bishops also asked for a cessation.

The Easter weekend starts Friday in the Western Christian Church. The Orthodox Church, to which most Serbs belong, celebrates Easter a week later.

Kosovo, a southern Serbian province, has been wracked by war since Milosevic launched a campaign against separatist ethnic Albanian rebels in February 1998.

Milosevic also removed the army commander for Montenegro and seven other top generals Thursday.

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