April 1, 1999
NORFOLK, Virginia (CNN) -- President Clinton said Thursday that Serb forces had "no basis" for capturing three U.S. soldiers, and warned that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosovic and his government would be held responsible for their safety.
Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said the United States considers the soldiers captured by Yugoslavia to be prisoners of war, and asserted that they are covered by the Geneva Conventions.
"We all know that three Army infantrymen were seized as they were carrying out a peacekeeping mission in Macedonia," Clinton told a gathering of military families at Norfolk Naval Air Station in Virginia.
"There was absolutely no basis for them to be taken. There was no basis for them to be held. There is certainly no basis for them to be tried," Clinton said, in an apparent reference to a Yugoslav report that the three men would have to appear in a military court.
"President Milosevic should make no mistake, the United States takes care of its own," Clinton said to rousing applause.
He said that NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia should continue until the objectives of the campaign are met -- "to restore Kosovars to their homes with security and self government."
The president said that the Balkans were a crucial area and that history justified U.S. involvement in the conflict.
"Remember that we fought two World Wars in Europe," Clinton said. "Remember that the prosperity and peace of the people in Europe is important to the future of the children in this room."
U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, in a news conference earlier Thursday, said the United States would not withdraw from the NATO campaign despite the capture of the U.S. soldiers.
"We will stay the course," Cohen said. "We will do everything in our power to ensure their safe return," he said of Staff Sgts. Andrew Ramirez and Christopher Stone and Spc. Steven M. Gonzales.
All three are from the 4th Cavalry of the 1st Infantry Division, stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany.
The Tanjung news agency in Yugoslavia reported that the captives will undergo an investigation by a military court in Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo, beginning as early as Friday.
NATO and U.S. officials at first denied reports by Serb authorities that the three men were captured in Serb territory, saying they were seized about three miles (five kilometers) from the border in Macedonia.
Later, however, NATO and U.S. military officials said the details of their capture were unclear.
The soldiers, who were part of an international peacekeeping force in Macedonia, were reportedly on a routine patrol at Macedonia's border with Yugoslavia when they radioed that they were under fire.
"They were involved in a firefight and felt they were surrounded," said Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Whether they escaped from that and were fleeing and went in the wrong direction, we don't know."
A senior White House official told CNN that the United States has relayed through Sweden its demands that Yugoslavia treat the captured soldiers humanely and allow the International Committee of the Red Cross or other medical personnel to visit the men immediately.
Ramirez, 24, is from Los Angeles; Stone, 25, is from Smiths Creek, Michigan; and Gonzales, 21, is from Huntsville, Texas. Stone is married and has one child.
"I just hope he comes home safely," an uncle of Ramirez said in San Antonio.
The Geneva Conventions are a series of international treaties signed in Switzerland between 1864 and 1949.
A senior Yugoslav source told CNN Correspondent Alessio Vinci in Belgrade that the men would be treated according to the 1949 Geneva Convention governing prisoners of war.
But Belgrade officials later said they do not consider the men prisoners of war, because Yugoslavia did not start the conflict and NATO has not declared war on the nation.
The Convention, however, covers prisoners of any armed conflict.
Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross should be allowed to visit the captured men under the terms of the Convention, said IRC President Louise Doswald Beck.
"I cannot tell you when such a visit would take place, but I can tell you it should take place," Beck said.
The Convention requires that prisoners of an armed conflict be treated humanely and that they be visited by the IRC to confirm their health and safety. The convention does not, however, specify when an IRC visit should take place, Beck said.
"What we do when we visit is ensure that their treatment is in accordance with the convention," she said.
Beck said the bruises on the faces of two of the captured men did not necessarily indicate a violation of the Geneva Convention.
"It depends, of course, on how they got such bruises," she said, explaining that if they were injured during their capture and not afterward it might not be a violation.
The Serb television broadcast of the three men, which showed them in their camouflage uniforms after their capture, was also not a clear violation of the Convention, Beck said.
"The convention says they must be protected against insults and public curiosity," she said.
White House demands Red Cross visit for captured soldiers
Extensive list of Kosovo-related sites
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