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Balkans Special Report

  'We're Trapped . . . We Can't Get Out'

The three U.S. soldiers captured by Serbian forces appeared on Yugoslavian television Thursday. From left: Andrew A. Ramirez, Christopher J. Stone and Steven M. Gonzales (AP)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 2, 1999; Page A1

ALGUNJA, Macedonia, April 1 The craggy terrain where three American soldiers were captured Wednesday is hostile, and so are the sentiments of the local Serb inhabitants.

Riding a dark green Humvee somewhere among the mountains, ridges and ravines near the tiny village of Sejdince in far northern Macedonia, the patrol team was on a routine border-monitoring mission when it radioed back to two other vehicles patrolling nearby.

"We're in contact, we're taking direct fire," one of the soldiers said.

"You better not be [kidding] me," came the response.

"We're taking direct fire. We're trapped. They're all around us. We can't get out."

It was 2:34 p.m. (7:34 a.m. EST). That was the last message heard from U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, and Spec. Steven M. Gonzales, 21, before they disappeared ultimately to show up some 19 hours later on Yugoslav state television, the first American prisoners of the Balkans war.

Their capture, and the announcement from Belgrade today that they were to appear Friday before a military court, was evidence of the unpredictable course of NATO's nine-day-old war against Yugoslavia.

While allied planners have mapped out an air war, three U.S. Army foot soldiers are now captive, bringing the war home to the 12,000 NATO troops deployed here as well as capital cities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Piecing together the story of the capture is like solving a mystery even after traveling over the same disorienting landscape the soldiers were driving across Wednesday afternoon. Working so close to Yugoslavia was one problem faced by the three Americans Sejdince hugs the border. Being in this part of Macedonia was another it is populated by ethnic Serbs who hate Americans for waging the war.

Accounts by NATO and Macedonian military officials and Macedonian civilians today suggested that the soldiers strayed onto Serbian soil by mistake, though there remained the possibility that they were captured in Macedonia by angry Serb civilians or by a Yugoslav army unit that strayed across the border.

NATO and Macedonian military officials, and civilians say the three got lost along the ill-defined and unmarked frontier near Sejdince, which sits a few miles northwest of Algunja.

Sejdince is a farming village that sits along what passes for the Macedonian border. There is no fence or sign to mark the village or the frontier. About two dozen red-tile roofed houses dot either side of the border. People here send their children to schools inside Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, local villagers say.

"The only way you know you are in Yugoslavia is there are different soldiers there," said an Algunja shepherd.

Macedonian farmers said that after straying across the border, the three soldiers were captured by Yugoslav troops in the Serbian village of Slavujevac a place so close to the frontier that, on military maps, its name obliterates the border line.

"According to our first investigation, they were patrolling in the region where there is no precise and defined border line between Macedonia and Yugoslavia," said Macedonian Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov. "It is quite possible that those soldiers had lost their way."

It is a tribute to the complex politics of the Balkans that many Macedonians speculated that the three were captured by Serb farmers and escorted into Serbia from Macedonia. Were these farmers citizens of Macedonia or Yugoslavia? In this part of the country, it matters little the ethnic Serbs who live on this side of the border regard themselves as kin to Serbs on the other side.

"My relatives are over there. We graze sheep over there," said Jovica Kelikovsky, a farmer in the border town of Pelince.

For Gonzales, Ramirez and Stone that meant danger almost any way they turned.

They are part of a 350-member U.S. contingent in Macedonia that had been part of a six-year United Nations international border-monitoring mission established as a tripwire to prevent the Balkans conflict from spreading. After the U.N. Security Council refused to renew its mandate for the force, the Americans this month were absorbed into the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps deployed here recently in preparation for possible peacekeeping duty in Kosovo.

The three soldiers at one point on Wednesday traveled in the company of two other Humvees, the low-rise successor to generations of American jeeps. Vuk Peshevsky, a grocery store owner at the foot of Algunja, where the paved road toward Sejdince ends, said he saw three Humvees bouncing on pasture and heading in the direction of the border at about 1:30 p.m. "Patrols try to avoid villages," Peshevsky said. "They know what the reaction would be."

Toni Georgiovitsky, in Pelince, explained angrily, "If I would see a patrol, I would pick up these stones and throw them. I wish I had a rocket launcher to shoot down the jets and helicopters."

Georgiovitsky was wearing a red, white and blue Yugoslav flag patch on a camouflage jacket. He and some friends relaxed at the Izborb Komerz grocery and billiards parlor and had foul words for the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. "They slit the throats of children. They should go to their own homeland," said one.

They were disdainful of President Clinton, saying that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would know what to do with him. "The Serbs will win the war. One hundred percent," Georgiovitsky said.

It is unclear how the Humvees became separated. U.S. officers here are closed-mouthed. In any case, a woman shopper from Sejdince at Peshevsky's grocery store said she heard shooting Wednesday afternoon. Late today, Macedonian television interviewed nearby villagers who said that the Humvee strayed into Yugoslavia, a Serb soldier yelled at them to stop, and then shooting began.

"How much money you think the Serbs will get for them," asked Georgiovitsky, drinking a mid-afternoon beer, "$500 million?"

The way to the frontier from Algunja took the three American soldiers back in time. Once the pavement ends, the path passes through streams. Mule-drawn plows still compete with tractors. The late 20th century is not going down comfortably. An anti-NATO epithet is scrawled on the stone encasement of the Algunja communal spring.

If they understood what the country folk were saying, the soldiers would have probably heard the same unpleasant greetings as an American reporter did today: curses.

A lone shepherd walking with his yapping dog gave directions to Sejdince. They were the wrong directions, and took today's travelers perilously close to the Serbian border and eventually into impassable, rocky paths.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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