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Crisis in Yugoslavia

L.A. Delegate Recounts Emotional Meeting With Yugoslav Leader

Talks: Milosevic listened to pleas of group led by Jesse Jackson. Soon after, the Americans were told of decision to free POWs.

May 03, 1999|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles member of the delegation that won the release of three U.S. prisoners of war said Sunday that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic listened to the delegates' pleas for three hours, showing moments of frustration and anger, and then sent them away with promises only to "think about it."

But shortly after the five Americans left the old palace where Milosevic was holed up, Yugoslavia's foreign minister called them to his house and told them that Milosevic had decided that the three U.S. soldiers could go free.

With the Rev. Jesse Jackson leading them, the Americans held hands and prayed, the delegation member said.

"It was very emotional. We all had tears in our eyes," said Dr. Nazir Uddin Khaja, a Torrance physician and president of the American Muslim Council, one of the five delegates at the meeting. About 20 delegates traveled to Belgrade with Jackson. "Even the foreign minister was visibly moved. Hopefully, God helped [Milosevic] make that decision and helped us to find a way."

Yet at the beginning of the at-times confrontational talks, Milosevic seemed disconcerted when Jackson reached for his hand in prayer, and the Yugoslav president waited a long moment before taking it, Khaja said.

The Torrance physician also had mixed feelings when Milosevic greeted them at the door of the palace at noon Saturday.

"It was an emotional, gut-wrenching experience to go there and shake hands with [Milosevic] because of the very idea of him being responsible for such vast destruction, killing, loss of life, displacement of people," Khaja said. "I am a physician and I believe in the sanctity of human life, regardless of color or creed."

Milosevic led them into a drawing room of the palace, which once belonged to a regional royal family and now serves as one of the alternating residences the Yugoslav president has used since the NATO bombing began March 24, Khaja said in a midnight telephone interview from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Jackson, as he often does in his self-styled diplomatic efforts, called for the group to stand in a circle and pray, holding hands.

"That obviously completely took [Milosevic] by surprise. He didn't know what to make of that," Khaja said. "Jackson was standing next to him and reaching for his hand. He was very slow to respond, and I could see that expression of confusion."

Jackson Gets Lecture From Milosevic

When Jackson outlined the American delegation's views--calling for a halt to the killing in Kosovo, the return of ethnic Albanian refugees to the province in Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, and the installation there of a U.N. peacekeeping force--Milosevic treated them to "a lecture that was 180 degrees opposite of our position."

Milosevic portrayed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the aggressor and himself as the victim. He gave a lengthy recounting of "all the good things he was trying to do for the region and how the U.S. has completely derailed his plans," Khaja said. "He wanted to establish what a visionary and popular leader he is."

At times during the discussion, the Yugoslav leader became emotional, evincing frustration and anger "at what he perceived was an outrage that NATO and America is unleashing on him," Khaja said. "It was really high drama."

At one point, the delegates underlined that their case was not against the Serbian people. Khaja said Milosevic asked them: "Then who is responsible?"

"I said, 'You are responsible,' " Khaja said. "He was a little surprised. I said, 'You are, in the court of public opinion.' It is [Milosevic] who is held totally responsible. The whole group said that in one way or another. Maybe I was more direct. In negotiations, you have to hold firm to the principles you believe in."

The delegation made those points as part of the effort to persuade Milosevic to release the three U.S. prisoners, Khaja said. Other points--to which the rest of the group wasn't privy--may have been made by Jackson when he drew Milosevic out into the garden and sat with him on a low railing under a tree for a 45-minute tete-a-tete out of earshot of the group, Khaja said.

At the end of the meeting, there was another prayer session and Milosevic said, "Let me think about it," according to Khaja.

"He didn't promise," Khaja said.

A short time later, the Americans were summoned to the foreign minister's home for the announcement that the three soldiers would be freed.

"I felt that moment was enormous," Khaja said. "One could feel palpably the weight of history and the burden of hope. I think this was a great effort for the sake of peace and stability. It may set the course for all of the warring parties to at least seek a more sane solution to this whole insanity that is going on in the Balkans."

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