U.S. soldiers face trial as airstrikes intensify

Clinton, U.S. officials vow to secure release of captured troops

'U.S. takes care of its own'

NATO now targeting bridges, roads as U.S. sends more planes

War In Yugoslavia

April 02, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and other U.S. officials said yesterday that they would "spare no effort" to gain the release of the three U.S. soldiers who were seized while on patrol near the Macedonia-Yugoslavia border, and they vowed to continue the intensified bombing campaign against the Serbs.

Yugoslavia television showed the three soldiers, wearing their camouflage uniforms and appearing bruised and battered. Officials in Belgrade said the soldiers would face trial as criminal invaders in a military proceeding today.

The three were captured Wednesday after radioing that they had come under small-arms fire. Their last transmission: "They're all around us. ... We can't get out."

The soldiers were identified as Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles; Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Mich.; and Spc. Steven M. Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas.

The Pentagon said the three, armed with M-16 rifles, were seized inside Macedonia, less than two miles from the Yugoslav border, while driving their Humvee vehicle near the village of Kumanovo. An investigation of their exact location at the time of their capture is being conducted.

Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister, Vuk Draskovic, asserted that the three soldiers had been taken inside Yugoslav territory. They will be treated humanely, Draskovic added.

Yesterday, visiting service members and their families at the naval base in Norfolk, Va., Clinton declared: "There was absolutely no basis for them to be taken. There is no basis for them to be held. There is certainly no basis for them to be tried."

The president drew cheers and applause when he added, "President Milosevic should make no mistake: The United States takes care of its own."

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said: "We will spare no effort to secure their safe return."

`Prisoners of war'

Yugoslav authorities did not specify charges against the soldiers, saying they would face an investigation by a military court in Pristina, Kosovo's capital.

Cohen said officials did not consider them prisoners of war but rather "illegal detainees." But his spokesman, Kenneth H. Bacon, later in the day described the soldiers as "prisoners of war" and thus subject to protections of the Geneva conventions.

James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said, "We will hold Belgrade authorities responsible for their safety and treatment." Rubin said the Geneva conventions apply "whether or not we're at a state of war."

"Under the Geneva Convention, to subject them to some phony trial, called a court-martial, is just ridiculous," he said.

Rosie Gonzales, the mother of Gonzales, said it was a "great relief" when she saw her son on Serbian television.

"However, of course we realize he's in a bad situation," she said at a news conference in Texas. "They're innocent young men who were over there as part of their duty to their country. It's just not right."

The soldiers were members of a 350-member U.S. force that was part of a United Nations observer mission in Macedonia that ended last month. Those American troops are now performing other duties, including reconnaissance and protection against Yugoslav forces for the 10,000 NATO troops who are in Macedonia as the vanguard of a proposed Kosovo peacekeeping force, officials said.

Administration criticized

The capture led one of Clinton's key Senate allies to bluntly criticize the administration, complaining that the soldiers had not been adequately protected.

"It is incomprehensible to me that the U.S. military would send a three-man patrol near the borders of Serbia," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat. "It was a virtual invitation."

One retired senior officer with experience in the Balkans who spoke on condition of anonymity also expressed surprise that the U.S. soldiers in Macedonia were so lightly armed and that their commanders did not take greater precautions.

"It's strange to me how you'd let soldiers get that close to the border when bombs are falling," this officer said. "It's not business as usual."

One Army colonel in the Pentagon defended the routine patrols, saying the soldiers were experienced in the region, had apparently been a good distance from the Yugoslav border and had never encountered trouble on their previous patrols. "You get a feel for a place," the colonel said.

Asked whether the incident amounted to a breakdown in force protection for the continuing patrols by U.S. troops in Macedonia, Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman, said such a question would be part of an internal Defense Department review. Security provisions for the troops, Bacon said, have been stepped up as a result of the incident.

Allied airstrikes continued yesterday on a wider range of targets. In addition to attacks on Yugoslav troops, armor and air defenses, the expanded list will include roads, bridges and tunnels, along with possible sites in downtown Belgrade.

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