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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Red Cross Chief Visits POWs; Families Elated

April 27, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — President Slobodan Milosevic, in a bow to international humanitarian law, allowed a Red Cross official to pay a brief visit Monday to three American soldiers taken prisoner 26 days earlier by the Yugoslav army.

Milosevic also said a Red Cross mission that fled Kosovo last month may return and "go anywhere" to search for tens of thousands of civilians missing in the embattled Serbian province, and to help the sick, the hungry, the wounded and the homeless.

Cornelio Sommaruga, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, announced the Yugoslav leader's decisions after meeting with him for more than an hour. Some Yugoslav politicians saw the concessions as a tentative gesture toward ending NATO's month-old bombing campaign.

The three Army soldiers were seized March 31 along the Yugoslav-Macedonian border and shown the next day on Serbian TV with bruised faces and cuts. They are Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, 24, of East Los Angeles; Spc. Steven Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas; and Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smith's Creek, Mich. The meeting was the first between the three servicemen and any outsider since their capture.

"I was able to talk to them only a few minutes, but it was a normal talk," Sommaruga told reporters. "We looked into each other's eyes and shook hands very warmly. . . . I cannot go any further because our talk was not private.

"I've said what I can," he added. "Don't be worried."

A beaming Vivian Ramirez said Monday afternoon that her family was elated by the news that a Red Cross official had visited with her son and the two other soldiers.

"I've been on cloud nine all day, and you couldn't get me down," said Ramirez, smiling broadly as she stood in front of Eastmont Elementary School in East Los Angeles, where she works as a media specialist. Behind her, the school trees were swathed in yellow ribbons. A sign on the brick wall of the school read: "Bring Our Andy Home."

She said Red Cross officials told her Monday morning that they found Andrew Ramirez in good condition. Hearing the news, she and her daughter Nadine hugged each other and "thanked the Lord," she said.

"I'm so excited," she said. "I don't know how I got here this morning. We just have to hang in there and be brave and hope that he'll be coming home soon. This wish has been answered, and now my second wish is that he will be released soon."

Ramirez said she was told by Red Cross officials that they gave her son the letters the family wrote to him several weeks ago, in which they expressed their love for him and told him about the outpouring of community support since his capture. He will be able to write them a letter back, which will be delivered through the Red Cross, she said.

"Everyone just has to keep praying and hope that he's out soon," she said.

Stone's father, Jim C. Stone of Avoca, Mich., reacting to reports of the Red Cross visit, told Associated Press: "Yippee! That's absolutely wonderful news."

Sommaruga said the meeting produced no discussion about possible freedom for the three. More will be known about their condition, he added, after two Red Cross delegates, including a doctor, hold a formal private session with the soldiers. The Yugoslav Defense Ministry promised that session for today.

Although Yugoslavia is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which requires access to war prisoners by designated third parties, Milosevic's government had, until Monday, rejected repeated Red Cross appeals to visit the soldiers. They are believed to be held in or near Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital.

Since being paraded on TV as trophies, the three soldiers have been ignored in the Yugoslav media. They have barely been mentioned since Spyros Kyprianou, speaker of Cyprus' parliament, arrived here April 7 in an effort to win their freedom and left empty-handed two days later, blaming continued NATO bombing.

The capture of a Yugoslav army lieutenant the following week produced a flurry of speculation--but no known talks--about a prisoner exchange. The officer, captured by ethnic Albanian rebels fighting for Kosovo's independence, was turned over to the U.S. Army in Albania and later transferred to a NATO base in Germany. The Red Cross has visited him twice.

Some politicians here said the arrival of the Red Cross president, who had been demanding a meeting with Milosevic since April 5, meant the Yugoslav leader is trying to encourage efforts by Russia to find a peace proposal acceptable to Yugoslavia and NATO. NATO is demanding autonomy within Serbia for the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo. Serbia is Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

"This is a calculated political message," said Predrag Simic, an advisor to Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic. "It may be Milosevic's way of saying we can make a deal."

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