BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Three U.S. servicemen were freed here early today after President Slobodan Milosevic and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson spent hours yesterday talking, walking in a garden and praying together.
The soldiers were released at 7: 40 a.m. and quickly made contact with their families, ending a month in captivity since they were surrounded and taken away by Serbian forces along the Yugoslav-Macedonia border.
"This is a material breakthrough," Jackson said yesterday when the decision to release them was announced. "This is a gesture that should not be ignored."
He pleaded for a "night of peace from bombs," to reciprocate the surprise decision, but the United States said the NATO bombardment would continue, to force a stop to Milosevic's campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.
"Operations are continuing. We are operating around the clock," a NATO official said at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
Jackson, whose trip to Yugoslavia was not sanctioned or endorsed by the U.S. government, said he would be carrying a letter from Milosevic offering a face-to-face meeting with President Clinton to resolve the five-week conflict.
The three U.S. captives -- Spc. Steven M. Gonzales, 21, of Hunts ville, Texas; Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles; and Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Mich., -- were to accompany Jackson and his delegation of religious leaders to Croatia today and then fly to a U.S. air base, likely in Germany.
Milosevic had said Friday that he would not release the U.S. soldiers until the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia stopped. His abrupt reversal was seen by some as an effort to gain diplomatic advantage and take advantage of political divisions in Washington over the Balkan crisis.
"There were many forces at work, not the least of which was God," Jackson said.
The key meeting occurred at one of Milosevic's presidential palaces yesterday. It began and ended in prayer, as Jackson grasped the hand of Milosevic, the son of an Orthodox priest.
For 3 1/2 hours, Jackson and other members of his delegation pressed and prodded the Yugoslav president. They made the case that a diplomatic gesture, such as the release of the soldiers, could serve as a spring for negotiations to end the Kosovo crisis. Milosevic insisted on giving the delegation a detailed history lesson on Serbian claims to Kosovo.
At one point in the meeting, Jackson told Milosevic, "You have the power to make a bold move." The president responded, "I'll think about it."
Jackson and Milosevic met alone for 30 minutes. Later, they strolled for 10 to 15 minutes through the presidential garden.
Jackson said he acknowledged to Milosevic that letting the prisoners go "is a problem politically. Keeping them here as magnets for expanding the war is also a problem."
Empty-handed yet still hopeful, some of the delegates arrived back at their hotel, while others scurried to see the three soldiers.
Unlike their stilted, sad encounter when they met Jackson Friday, the soldiers were more relaxed yesterday.
"They showed a lot of love," said Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Los Angeles. "They weren't scared. It was an amazing hour."
Yet no more amazing than what followed. Shortly before 5 p.m., Jackson and four other members of the delegation were whisked off to a meeting with Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic.
Over tea and coffee, he read the delegates a statement, one member recalled: "The government of Yugoslavia and President Milosevic have agreed -- it's my pleasure to inform you -- that you can take your soldiers home."
"It was really very moving, very exciting," said Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich, an Illinois Democrat of Serbian ancestry. "I tapped Reverend Jackson on the hand. Then we got right back to work about logistics."
Jackson said Milosevic addressed "in a meaningful way" four key issues raised by the United States and NATO: ending violence in Kosovo, allowing the return of refugees, agreeing to a multinational peacekeeping force and reaching political settlement.
He added that Milosevic "is going to send to President Clinton a letter laying out his response to those four basic concerns, the desire to meet with him and to take this matter to resolution through negotiations."
Jackson called Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, to brief him on developments, and Berger relayed the conversation to Clinton, who was playing golf in Virginia yesterday afternoon.
"If they were able to secure the release of the prisoners, that would be a positive development," said National Security Council spokesman David Leavy.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Jackson also called Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to confirm the soldiers' release. Asked whether the release would bring a halt to NATO airstrikes, Rubin suggested it would not.
"Secretary Albright indicated to Jackson our position remains unchanged," Rubin said.
But the Yugoslavs clearly expect to get something in return from the concession.