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  Yugoslavia Identifies 3 Soldiers

By Philippa Fletcher
Thursday, April 1, 1999; 4:29 a.m. EST

BELGRADE, April 1 (Reuters) - Yugoslavia's army confirmed on Thursday that it had captured three American soldiers after NATO reported a patrol missing near the Yugoslav border in Macedonia, a dangerous new turn in the deepening Kosovo crisis.

The Americans were identified as officers James Stone and Andrew Ramirez and soldier Steven Gonzales, the official Yugoslav state news agency Tanjug said in a report based on information from Radio Television Serbia (RTS).

Earlier, Serbian television showed film of three bruised soldiers.

A spokesman for the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division in Germany was asked if the three soldiers shown on television were the servicemen reported missing.

Captain John Clearwater told Reuters by telephone: "As far as we can tell it is them. They are from the 1st/4th Cavalry of the 4th Infantry Division, based in Schweinfurt."

NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana called the capture a very serious development.

"Under a mandate they have had for several years, they were patrolling the frontier of Macedonia with Serbia," he told Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. "It seems they were captured by Serbian forces which crossed the border and entered Macedonia."

As ethnic Albanian refugees continued to stream out of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo, Russia's foreign minister said the crisis was spreading beyond Yugoslavia. Russia was preparing unspecified measures to help end the fighting, Igor Ivanov said, according to Interfax news agency.

He said he was worried by NATO's plan to move to a third stage of air strikes in Yugoslavia. This presented "new tasks" for Russia's armed forces.

Russia, which opposes NATO air strikes but failed to persuade Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to pull back, earlier unnerved Washington by saying it was sending a warship to the Mediterranean.

In Brussels, NATO said it expected any of its soldiers captured by Yugoslavia to be treated humanely and in accordance with civilised norms of behaviour.

The Serbian television film showed three men in U.S. uniforms with facial bruises, speaking to an interviewer. It said they had been captured on Serbian territory, resisted arrest and there had been a struggle: "During their capture, the U.S. soldiers put up resistance."

The three, travelling in an armoured vehicle, had reported by radio they had come under small-arms fire and been surrounded some three miles (five km) from the border before communications went dead, U.S. military sources in Macedonia said.

The last words heard from them were "Help, help, SOS."

It was the first incident of missing NATO forces since air strikes began last week. A U.S. F-117 stealth fighter crashed last weekend but the pilot was rescued.

The soldiers disappeared in mountainous terrain in an area where most of Macedonia's 2,000 ethnic Serbs live and where protests against the NATO bombing occur almost daily.

NATO's bombing campaign appeared to ease on Thursday. Local media reported only a few isolated attacks before dawn.

In the northern town of Novi Sad, witnesses told Reuters a bridge across the River Danube had been hit.

Tanjug news agency said NATO planes had bombed the town of Uzice in western Serbia and the village of Gnijlane in Kosovo.

Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran left for Belgrade with a message to Milosevic from the Pope, trying to halt fighting before the West's Easter Sunday celebrations on April 4.

NATO's military mission was made more urgent by fears for the safety of 50,000 refugees in Kosovo's Pagarusa Valley who appeared to be at the mercy of Yugoslav forces with tanks and heavy artillery after separatist guerrillas defending the valley were overrun.

In neighbouring Albania, international monitors said almost 100,000 refugees had crossed snow-covered mountains from Kosovo. The Albanian government said 100,000 more might be on the way.

U.S. and Kosovan sources said two Kosovo Albanian leaders reported by NATO to have been executed last weekend Fehmi Agani, a politician who played a key role in peace talks in France, and Baton Haxhiu, a newspaper editor were alive.

NATO has ruled out any Easter pause in the raids. General Klaus Naumann insisted it would be "deeply inhumane" to give Milosevic a free hand to continue his offensive in Kosovo.

The escalation of the onslaught on Kosovo since air strikes began has led to calls for NATO to send in ground troops before any settlement is agreed.

But President Bill Clinton told CBS television: "The thing that bothers me about introducing ground troops into a hostile situation into Kosovo and into the Balkans is the prospect of never being able to get them out."

Refugees arriving in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro told stories of seeing relatives and neighbours killed in cold blood.

Many said Serbian troops had stripped them of identity papers and even car number plates to deprive them of proof they were ever Yugoslav citizens and prevent them returning.

Belgrade says its forces in Kosovo are merely responding to aggression by the KLA and by NATO, which it accuses of violating international law, sponsoring terrorism and seeking to dismember Serbia.

© Copyright 1999 Reuters

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