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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia Hands Over 3 Captured U.S. Soldiers

Balkans: POWs board bus to leave Belgrade for Croatia with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. NATO raids continue, and the pilot of an F-16 jet is rescued after going down over Serbia.

May 02, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — President Slobodan Milosevic freed three captured U.S. Army soldiers today and sent them homeward with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had lobbied for their release as a step toward ending 39 days of NATO bombing.

The soldiers were brought to the Yugoslav army press center in downtown Belgrade on the 33rd day of their captivity and turned over to Jackson's delegation of American religious leaders.

The leaders, seated across a large room, stood and applauded as the soldiers were led in to witness a formal signing of their release by Lt. Gen. Blagoje Kovacevic, the Yugoslav army's deputy chief of staff.

"We welcome you to bombed Belgrade," the general told the delegation and the three soldiers. Then Jackson crossed the room and embraced the three, thanking "God's mercy and grace" for their freedom. He added: "Let nations not rise up against nations."

Jackson handed his cellular telephone to the soldiers so they could call their families. Army Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smith's Creek, Mich., cried and smiled as he spoke. Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, 24, of East Los Angeles, wiped his eyes when he got his turn. Jackson, seated beside him, was also in tears.

Stone, Ramirez and the third soldier, Army Spc. Steven Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas, each made statements to the Yugoslav officials.

Ramirez said: "I'd like to thank the Yugoslav government for our treatment. It was very good, very fair. Hopefully, now everyone will be free and there will be peace."

After the statements, the trio boarded a bus with the religious delegation, bound for the 90-minute drive to the Croatian border, then on to the capital, Zagreb. From there, they were to fly to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

The soldiers' release, two days after a Russian peace initiative stalled, was Milosevic's most dramatic gesture since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched its air offensive to counter his military's assault on ethnic Albanians in the nation's Kosovo province.

Milosevic made the decision Saturday after meeting with the American civil rights leader for three hours and then with his own advisors. The Yugoslav leader set no conditions on the soldiers' freedom but gave Jackson a letter to President Clinton requesting a face-to-face meeting.

"The president took the decision in support of Jesse Jackson's peace efforts," Tanjug, the state news agency, reported. "We do not see them as enemies but victims of war and militarism."

Yugoslavia failed to capture another prisoner early today when the pilot of an F-16 jet was rescued by allied forces after his plane went down over western Serbia.

The unidentified pilot was undergoing a medical examination at an allied base, Lt. Col. Michael Kaemnerer said at NATO military headquarters in Brussels. An investigation into the cause of the crash was ongoing.

Before the departure for Belgrade of Jackson and his delegation--which included Dr. Nazir Uddin Khaja of the American Muslim Council and Rabbi Steven Bennett Jacobs, both from Los Angeles--Clinton had sought to discourage their trip.

In Belgrade, Jackson urged both sides to "seize this moment" and step up diplomatic efforts to end the conflict over the ethnic Albanian majority's demands for autonomy for Kosovo--a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

NATO, he said, should halt its bombing long enough to assess Milosevic's move and get the soldiers safely out of the country. "Give [Yugoslavia] a night of peace from bombs," he added.

But Serbian media reported that NATO kept up its raids overnight, with targets including an oil refinery in the northern city of Novi Sad, a factory in the central Serbian town of Cacak, two bridges in central Serbia and an area near the airport, just west of Belgrade. Belgrade itself was spared.

During the previous 24 hours, NATO forces had pounded Yugoslavia with another storm of airstrikes, knocking out key communications sites to frustrate Milosevic's control of Serbian troops who have escalated the "ethnic cleansing" of Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city.

The bombing raids targeted Serbian forces throughout the embattled province, destroying tanks, armored vehicles, fielded artillery and command posts as well as vital links in the government's radio relay network and seven bridges on important supply routes in or near Kosovo, NATO spokesman Peter Daniel said in Brussels.

After striking Friday at the heart of Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, with the bombing of army and police headquarters buildings, NATO went after "the nervous system" to disrupt communications between the capital and the 40,000 Serbian troops fighting guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army and brutalizing ethnic Albanians in the province, Daniel said.

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