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Crisis in Yugoslavia

3 U.S. Soldiers Possibly Captured Along Border

Balkans: American recon was patrolling near Macedonian capital of Skopje, just south of Yugoslav border, when it radioed that it was under fire and surrounded.

April 01, 1999|JAMES GERSTENZANG and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Three U.S. Army soldiers patrolling the rugged terrain of Macedonia's border with Yugoslavia were reported missing late Wednesday after they radioed fellow soldiers that they were surrounded and under fire, NATO and Pentagon officials said.

The reconnaissance team had been traveling in a Humvee northwest of the Kumanovo area, about 15 miles from Skopje, the Macedonian capital, and about three miles south of the Yugoslav border.

The search for the missing soldiers continued as it neared dawn, with Macedonia's police and military participating as well as allied forces, according to British Maj. David Pashen, the NATO spokesman in Skojpe. Italian and French helicopters and U.S. C-130 aircraft searched today, and British helicopters were expected to join in when the air missions started up again this morning, Pashen said.

President Clinton was informed of their disappearance, a White House spokesman said.

A Pentagon official said the soldiers may have been abducted by Serbian soldiers, Serbian secret police or even Serbian radicals in Macedonia.

The soldiers, whose names were not made public, are members of a unit deployed as possible peacekeepers if a deal is reached in Kosovo, the war-torn Serbian province. They were part of a convoy and became separated from other patrols.

As NATO's campaign against Yugoslavia entered its second week, bombers struck for the first time near the heart of Belgrade, Yugoslavia's capital, Russia ordered warships steaming toward the conflict and Serbian forces continued an unrestrained rampage across Kosovo.

Even before the soldiers disappeared, U.S. and NATO officials grew increasingly defensive Wednesday about the military operation's progress. They fended off pressure to send troops into ground combat, but Clinton's spokesman said the White House might consider such a course if the allies recommend it.

In other developments Wednesday:

* Pentagon officials expressed concern that the Air Force and Navy were depleting their supply of cruise missiles more rapidly than some planners preferred. They have fired more than 100. All told, the military campaign is costing the Pentagon an estimated several hundred million dollars a week.

* A United Nations court said it has secretly indicted Zeljko Raznatovic, a notorious Serbian paramilitary leader known as "Arkan," in September 1997 on allegations of committing war crimes during the Bosnian civil war in the mid-1990s. He has been seen in Belgrade in recent days.

* The Clinton administration said it was setting aside $50 million to help provide food and shelter for the more than 580,000 people of Kosovo that the State Department estimates have been uprooted.

* At least 7,000 men, women and children were marched to the train station in Kosovo's capital, Pristina. No independent witnesses were allowed to see what happened to them next, but a Serbian journalist said they were being taken south to the Macedonian border.

* The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, was heading to Belgrade today with a personal appeal for peace from Pope John Paul II.

* The United States closed Yugoslavia's embassy in Washington.

The soldiers who disappeared Wednesday are members of the 1st Infantry Division based in Wuerzburg, Germany, who had arrived in early March to relieve another contingent. They were part of a convoy that had split up for rough terrain training, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon did not make their names public pending notification of relatives.

The soldiers are part of Task Force Able Sentry, which had been in Macedonia for years to stabilize the region but was supplanted by a NATO force called Allied Rapid Reaction Corps., whose original goal was to enforce a Kosovo peace accord.

But a Kosovo peace looks distant. Allied officials refused to be pinned down Wednesday on how long the campaign against Yugoslavia will last. Their use of the phrase "day by day, week by week" to describe the pace they are ready to follow to achieve their goals--stripping away Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's military might and making Kosovo safe for its ethnic Albanians--suggested an open-ended battle.

"This mission will be defined by reaching those objectives, not the calendar," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said.

Allied officials in Washington and Brussels took pains to portray Yugoslavia, where fuel rationing was reportedly in effect, as a nation suffering under the relentless bombardment.

Bearing Down on Milosevic

"He's hurting," Air Commodore David Wilby, a NATO spokesman said of Milosevic. "We know that he is running short of fuel. We're now starting to hit him very hard on the ground. You will start to see the resolve starting to crack very quickly."

After the Atlantic Alliance agreed Tuesday night to broaden the targets of the B-1B and B-52 bombers and other allied aircraft, the Pentagon said a Serbian secret police unit, the Special Unit Corps, was struck near downtown Belgrade.

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