Serb Forces Abduct Three U.S. Soldiers
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 1, 1999 Yugoslav forces abducted three noncombatant American soldiers patrolling, March 31, on the border of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Belgrade television displayed photos of their badly beaten faces.
"We've all seen their pictures. We don't like it," said U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's Operation Allied Force commander. "We don't like the way they are treated and we have a long memory about these kinds of things."
Army officials identified the soldiers as Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, from Los Angeles, Calif.; Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, from Smiths Creek, Mich.; and Spc. Steven M. Gonzales, 21, from Huntsville, Texas. The three are cavalry scouts assigned to B Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division, in Schweinfurt, Germany.
Clark said the alliance is concerned about the safety and welfare of the soldiers, but he had not called Yugoslav military authorities. "They know very well what the right way to treat people is," the general said at an April 1 NATO briefing in Brussels, Belgium. "They know what the law is, and as the [NATO] secretary-general said, they will be held accountable."
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said the United States will spare no effort to secure the trio's safe return. Speaking at an April 1 press conference at Norfolk Naval Station, Va., he said the soldiers have been "illegally detained," but are not considered prisoners of war at this point. Whether their status changes depends on the legal interpretation of where they were and how they fell into Serb hands and "that will take some time to resolve," he said.
British Foreign Minister Robin Cook was the first world leader to condemn the incident and the public broadcast of the photos. He said anyone who has seen the pictures must be concerned about the way the soldiers are being treated.
"There is no possible justification for using soldiers who have been captured for propaganda purposes," Cook said. "It is explicitly barred by international agreement, which once again, President Milosevic is plainly breaking."
Cook said the incident has increased his resolve to end the Kosovo crisis, "and I'm quite sure that will be the reaction of the great majority of the people on both sides of the Atlantic who see those distressing photographs and the cynicism with which they have been used and manipulated, both, for Belgrade's propaganda needs."
NATO officials initially said the men, members of Task Force Able Sentry, were in Macedonia while Serb officials claimed the Americans crossed the border into Kosovo. "We're still investigating where the incident occurred," Clark said.
"What we do know is that they began to be shot at, he said. They attempted to move out of harm's way and return further south. They then said, 'We're totally surrounded.' The radio transmission was cut off and they disappeared for several hours. The next we saw, they were badly beaten up and shown on television in Belgrade."
NATO has increased protection for its forces in the Balkans, Clark said. "We're ready, should there be challenges to us," he said. "If more needs to be done, we'll do it."
About 7,300 U.S. service members are directly supporting Operation Allied Force and another 6,900 are part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia. About 350 are part of Task Force Able Sentry in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The task force was part of the U.N. Preventive Deployment Mission that patrolled the Yugoslavia-Macedonia border from July 1993 until its mandate expired Feb. 28. Able Sentry then transferred to NATO control. Its new mission is to coordinate force protection measures for U.S. and other NATO forces in Macedonia against potential Yugoslav threats.