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3 POWS First Expected to Be Executed, Rabbi Says

Ordeal: Member of delegation that won soldiers' freedom met with them in Belgrade prison. He relates details of mission upon return to Los Angeles.


Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez and the two other American soldiers had been beaten by their Yugoslav captors in the countryside, and in the early hours of their 32-day ordeal, even thought they were about to be executed, according to a Los Angeles rabbi who was in the delegation that won their release.

A Yugoslav general gave Rabbi Steven Jacobs and eight other U.S. delegates 20 minutes alone Saturday afternoon with each of the soldiers in a Belgrade prison.

Jacobs, the rabbi of Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, was invited by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to join the 20-member delegation on its unofficial mission to free the three soldiers who were captured along the Macedonia-Kosovo border.

Ramirez, 24, of East Los Angeles, walked into the meeting room with a broad smile, Jacobs said.

"I told Andrew I had talked to his mother," Jacobs said in an interview upon his return to Los Angeles on Tuesday. "I sent love and I asked him to write a letter to her. He started to write and then he just choked up."

But Ramirez would be able to deliver the letter to his mother himself. Three hours later, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic ordered the three Americans freed.

When bombing by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces resumed Saturday night, the American delegation "went from being elated to being fearful that the release would fall through," Jacobs said. The American soldiers, however, believed they might be released because friendly prison guards, who spoke no English, made excited hand gestures of a plane taking off and waving goodbye, he said.

When the prisoners did walk free the next morning, it was one of the only times they had seen one another at the prison, Jacobs said. They knew they were in Belgrade only because they heard air sirens and big city traffic, he said.

"They were just scared. And then they were so happy and so giddy" when they learned they would be going home, Jacobs said. "They talked about how faith got them through the long days and nights."

In Germany, tests revealed that Ramirez had two fractured ribs and Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone's nose was broken. They are receiving intense debriefings, along with Spc. Steven Gonzales.

On the way out of Yugoslavia, Jacobs said, the three told him they had been captured when their vehicle became mired in mud and they got out to free it.

Ordered on their knees, the men were kicked and beaten, Jacobs said. He said their captors rendered them sightless, covering their heads with bags or hoods for most of the first week of their ordeal. They also were forced to crouch into extremely uncomfortable positions for hours at a time, Jacobs said.

"At one point they were pushed down on the ground, on their knees, with their hands tied behind their backs, and they thought they were going to be killed. That was the scariest moment," Jacobs said.

Once in Belgrade, the prisoners were treated relatively well, Jacobs said. They were held separately, although they met by chance in a hallway.

The mission led by Jackson had no formal U.S. government backing. Before they left, President Clinton's national security advisor, Samuel R. Berger, "advised us not to go in the strongest possible terms," Jacobs said. "He said he could not guarantee our safety, that the bombing was not going to stop. He did say 'Godspeed.' "

Indeed, shortly after the delegation arrived in Belgrade last Wednesday night, the overnight bombing began in earnest, and when an earthquake hit at dawn Thursday, delegates thought their hotel had been hit, he said.

Jacobs said his mission's effort was greatly aided Thursday when the delegation persuaded the top Serbian church leader to write Milosevic a letter pleading for the Americans' release.

Everyone in Belgrade deplored the NATO bombing, he said. Belgrade's top Jewish leader, Aca Singer, said to tell Clinton that "I didn't survive Auschwitz to be killed by American bombs." Jacobs said he relayed the message Monday night when the delegation met with Clinton at the White House.

The president told them he was "gratified, on behalf of the American people, at what we were able to accomplish," Jacobs said.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was more adamant, Jacobs said, telling them that Yugoslav officials "are going to have to accept our conditions and then we'll talk about stopping the bombing."

But Jacobs said the shockingly desolate cityscape of bombed-out Belgrade left him convinced the war is claiming too many civilian lives.

"There are numbers of Serbs, good people, who are getting bombed," Jacobs said. "Innocent lives are being lost. The bombs have got to stop."

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