Soldiers may be freed

3 U.S.

Milosevic asks leader of Greek Cypriots to talks on release today

U.S. `would welcome that'

But allies insist they won't slacken attacks as `pay' for freedom

War In Yugoslavia

April 08, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Yugoslavia dangled the possible release of three American prisoners yesterday amid several crosscurrents of diplomacy aimed at ending the Kosovo war and stabilizing the blood-drenched Balkans.

In the second diplomatic initiative from Belgrade in two days, the government of Slobodan Milosevic arranged for the acting president of Greek Cypriots, Spyros Kyprianou, to fly to Yugoslavia today to discuss the release of the Americans, who were captured on the Macedonian border.

The Yugoslav-Cypriot initiative came a day after Milosevic offered a temporary cease-fire in the war over Kosovo in observance of the Orthodox Easter holiday. While NATO and the White House rejected a cease-fire, they welcomed the possible release of the U.S. soldiers but insisted that there would be no letup in the 2-week-old air campaign.

"If President Milosevic does the civilized thing and releases them, we would welcome that. But as for paying a price, of course not. The mission goes on," said NATO spokesman Jamie P. Shea.

Said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, "I think President Milosevic would be making a mistake to believe that anything that doesn't meet the demands laid out by the NATO alliance would bring an end to these hostilities."

NATO has said the three soldiers -- Staff Sgts. Christopher Stone, 25, and Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, and Spc. Steven M. Gonzales, 21 -- were seized March 31 while patrolling the Yugoslav-Macedonian border. Yugoslav authorities have said they were captured inside Kosovo. When shown on Serbian-controlled television the next day, at least two of the soldiers were bruised.

Both Milosevic moves were seen in Washington as an effort to split the alliance and weaken support for continued military action. Nevertheless, the United States was prepared to allow Kyprianou's plane to fly safely to Belgrade today without fear of getting caught in the war.

The diplomatic effort illuminated the role of Greece, which is a member of NATO and has close ties to Cyprus, where more than three-quarters of the population is ethnic Greek and the rest is Turkish.

Greece, which is providing a plane to take Kyprianou to Belgrade, has refused to participate in NATO airstrikes, saying the problems of Kosovo can't be solved with military action. Turkey is participating in the NATO attacks.

In a statement Tuesday night, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis said the West must "engage in a political dialogue with Yugoslavia."

Milosevic has ties to Greece: His family is believed to own property in Athens and on Crete and Corfu.

The Cypriot initiative to seek the release of the U.S. soldiers was one of several diplomatic efforts under way yesterday.

It occurred as the West arrived at a crossroads in the military campaign: Milosevic has largely succeeded in driving out Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and defeating the Kosovo Liberation Army rebels, officials acknowledge.

Nevertheless, NATO plans to step up its air attacks in coming days and weeks to drive Yugoslav forces out of Kosovo. And support is growing in Washington and Europe for sending in ground troops should the air campaign fail.

While pressing ahead with the air campaign, however, Washington has joined in a series of diplomatic moves aimed at crafting a future not only for Kosovo but for the Balkan region. "There's a sense that we need to develop a long-term strategy for the Balkans," said a NATO diplomat.

Underlying the discussion is the assumption that NATO air power alone will be enough to drive Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo and that a ground invasion will not be necessary. How long the airstrikes will take is unclear, however.

Key to the effort is to "try to start mending fences with Russia," the NATO diplomat said. Discussions will continue with Russia on several levels this week and next. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott met with Russians yesterday.

In a 40-minute "candid, businesslike" telephone call Tuesday to Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, Vice President Al Gore restated NATO's goals and "underscored the president's message: Milosevic can end this" if he fulfills the four requirements spelled out by Washington, an aide said.

Those requirements are a Serbian military withdrawal from Kosovo, return of the refugees, acceptance of international peacekeepers in the province and a move toward a political framework based on the agreement reached last month in France --

A high-level meeting of the world's major industrialized powers -- the G8 -- is likely next week. Russia is part of that group.

Moscow stepped up its efforts yesterday to dissuade Western nations from continuing the war.

At the same time that Western officials were denouncing Milosevic publicly, they were preparing to offer an olive branch to Yugoslavia's Serbs once the Kosovo conflict is over, according to the NATO diplomat. Under consideration are lifting sanctions and working to improve Yugoslavia's relations with its neighbors.

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