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Crisis in Yugoslavia

U.S. Warning: Don't Mistreat 3 Captive GIs

Balkans: Clinton declares Milosevic will be held responsible for soldiers' safety. Yugoslav media say men's trial, called unlawful by Washington, may begin today.

April 02, 1999|ART PINE and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The United States, outraged by Yugoslavia's intention to try three U.S. soldiers captured near the Macedonian border, issued a stern warning Thursday to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to provide humane treatment of the men.

During a visit to a naval base in Norfolk, Va., President Clinton warned that Milosevic "should make no mistake: The United States takes care of its own," and said that Washington will hold the Yugoslav leader responsible "for the men's safety and well-being."

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said any trial--which Yugoslav news agencies said could begin as early as today--would be "obviously ridiculous" and a violation of international law.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said later that the United States regards the three soldiers as prisoners of war, a legal status that he said entitles them to humane treatment and, "depending on the circumstances," possibly to immediate release.

U.S. officials became alarmed when footage of the captured soldiers, broadcast on Serbian television Thursday, showed their faces bearing some bruises and abrasions.

"We've all seen their pictures--we don't like it," U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, commander of NATO forces, said in Brussels. U.S. officials hinted that efforts were underway to free the soldiers but declined to provide any details.

But U.S. efforts were complicated by the fact that American officials were not sure whether the men were actually in Macedonia when they were captured Wednesday afternoon, as the Pentagon claimed late Wednesday, or had strayed north into Yugoslavia, as Belgrade contended.

Bacon said U.S. military authorities were conducting an investigation to determine that and to answer other questions, including why the Americans' Humvee all-terrain vehicle had separated from a convoy and apparently was not guarded by helicopters.

The Pentagon identified the men as Staff Sgts. Andrew Ramirez, 24, of East Los Angeles and Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smith's Creek, Mich., and Spc. Steven Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas.

The uproar over the treatment of the three soldiers came as the airstrikes against Yugoslavia continued--and the Clinton administration faced mounting political difficulties in carrying out the NATO military offensive to punish Milosevic for his reign of terror in separatist Kosovo province.

In other developments Thursday:

* The Pentagon reported that U.S. forces had destroyed a key bridge in Novi Sad, one of the larger cities in the Yugoslav republic of Serbia. The news provided one of the earliest indications that NATO has widened the scope of its airstrikes from the narrower military targets that it had pursued until this week.

* An additional 30,000 ethnic Albanian refugees poured out of Kosovo into neighboring Macedonia, Albania and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, bringing the total number of refugees in those areas to more than 200,000. Most of them have arrived during the past nine days of airstrikes.

* In Moscow, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin delivered a nationally televised address accusing NATO of escalating the conflict in Kosovo and warning that it could lead to international tragedy. The U.S. formally rejected a proposal by Yeltsin to convene a meeting of the leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized countries--the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, Italy and Russia--to discuss the Kosovo crisis.

* U.S. officials expressed concern that Milosevic may be about to tighten control on Montenegro, which Washington previously has considered a "beacon of hope" for Yugoslav democracy.

In an ominous development, Yugoslavia's official Tanjug news agency reported that Milosevic had removed Montenegro's army commander and seven other top generals Thursday, in what could be the first step in a crackdown against the republic's pro-Western government.

The State Department's Rubin warned that any attempt to undermine Montenegro's government could escalate the conflict with NATO. He said a takeover of Montenegro by Belgrade would "have negative implications throughout the region."

U.S. and NATO officials also expressed apprehension about television footage showing that Ibrahim Rugova, a key leader of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, was in Belgrade on Thursday to confer with Milosevic. Rubin sidestepped questions on what transpired at a meeting between the two men.

U.S. Is Sending Additional F-117As

Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced that the United States is sending an additional 13 radar-evading F-117A Stealth fighters to take part in the NATO airstrikes over Yugoslavia. It was an F-117A that apparently was downed by a Serbian SA-3 surface-to-air missile Saturday. The pilot was rescued.

The additional aircraft are expected to leave Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico soon, in time to arrive in the Kosovo region sometime this weekend. The additions will bring the number of Stealth fighters that the United States has in the region to 24--out of more than 200 aircraft overall.

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