Trial still possible for captured U.S. soldiers
April 3, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As family and friends of the three U.S. soldiers captured by Serb forces headed into a weekend of worry for their loved ones, a top Yugoslav minister issued assurances over their safety.
"I can tell your fellow Americans that American prisoners of war, the three American soldiers, are safe and treated in a civilized manner," Yugoslav foreign minister Zivadin Jovanovic said during a taped interview for CNN's "Larry King Live." Friday night.
The Tanjug news agency in Yugoslavia said Belgrade officials have begun collecting evidence for use in a criminal proceeding against the three soldiers, who were captured Wednesday near the Yugoslavia-Macedonia border.
Jovanovic refused to say whether the three would face a trial.
"It is up to the authorities to investigate and to find particular surroundings and particular facts which will clarify the circumstances of their involvement in the aggression against Yugoslavia," Jovanovic told King.
He also said if international Red Cross officials requested entry to Yugoslavia, they would be "welcomed". He did not specify if the Red Cross would be granted access to the captured U.S. soldiers.
The Swedish ambassador to Belgrade earlier had delivered a message from the United States to Yugoslav officials demanding that representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross be allowed to see the soldiers.
The Swedes "have not been able to obtain that access, and that is troubling to us," State Department spokesman James Rubin said Friday.
Yugoslavia broke off diplomatic relations with the United States after NATO airstrikes began, and Sweden is acting as an intermediary.
Since announcing that the soldiers were under investigation and would face trial, Yugoslav authorities have remained tight-lipped about details of their capture.
"We've seen reports that they have begun an investigation, but I don't know what that means," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Friday. "We've seen reports that they will have a trial and other reports they have decided not to -- clearly that would be the right decision."
Meanwhile, Vice President Al Gore told CNN that the White House had put Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on notice that he must protect the three U.S. servicemen.
"These men are superbly trained, they are men of honor, Milosevic and his forces had absolutely no right to seize them,"" Gore said.
The Pentagon is still attempting to determine which side of the Macedonia-Yugoslav border they were on when captured Wednesday.
They reported coming under fire and being surrounded shortly before disappearing while on patrol.
All three servicemen are cavalry scouts for the U.S. Army and were originally deployed from their base in Germany to Macedonia as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission.
The men have been identified as Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone and Specialist Steven Gonzales.
Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez
Ramirez, 24, grew up in Los Angeles, attending Schurr High School in Montebello, were he was on the track and wrestling teams. He was in the Gifted and Talented Education program in his sophomore year and made the honor roll in his junior year.
He graduated in 1992 and entered the Army in July of that year.
His parents are divorced; his father is in the computer business, and his mother works at a department store. Ramirez's sister lives out of state. His brother, Steve, is a police detective.
Los Angeles police Cmdr. David Kalish spoke with Steve Ramirez.
"He told me that he loves his little brother very much -- he is very worried," Kalish said. "And he told me that his little brother is a brave soldier, and he is confident that he will be strong through this entire ordeal."
Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone
"Popular and just a little bit wild and mischievous" is how Krystal Niemi describes the Christopher Stone she knew growing up in Capac, Michigan.
His former teachers remember him as an average student and a not-so-great cross country runner who never quit trying to improve.
Stone, 25, is married. His wife, Tricia, and their 5-year-old son, Ryan, live in San Antonio, Texas.
"As a family we are doing all right, and we are doing our very best to help Tricia and Ryan through their ordeal until Christopher returns safely to us," said Lisa McKinney, Tricia Stone's mother.
Christopher Stone's father, Jim Stone, said the family is very concerned and watching media reports closely.
"Chris is a very special American and an incredibly proud soldier, and we are very proud of him," he said in a brief statement at the National Guard Armory in Port Huron, Michigan, his voice often breaking with emotion.
"I was generally encouraged by the president's remarks this afternoon and his commitment to do everything possible to ensure that Chris and his fellow soldiers are returned safely," said the elder Stone.
Spec. Steven Gonzales
The parents of Steven Gonzales, 21, say their son is a strong, religious person and they put their faith in God for his return.
They spoke from their home in Huntsville, Texas, about 90 miles from where Steven grew up in the town of Palestine.
He was a standout student at the Palestine High School, academically gifted and on the cross country track team.
After graduating, Gonzales won a scholarship to Texas A&M but dropped out after one year, enlisted in the Army in 1996 and re-enlisted for two more years in 1998.
Rosie Gonzales broke down in tears she talked about her son.
"Steven and those other two soldiers don't deserve this," she said. "They should not be dealt with as criminals. They're innocent young men who were over there as part of their duty to their country."
Her husband, Gilbert, was more stoic. He said the Gonzales family is trying to keep the household as normal as possible for the sake of Steven's 8- and 14-year-old brothers.
"We have to put our faith in God, and let him take care of what needs to be done and bring him home safely to us," the father said.
Both of Gonzales' parents work for the Texas Department of Corrections.
Correspondents Charles Zewe and Ed Garsten contributed to this report.
Belgrade attacked; Yugoslav calls captured soldiers 'safe'
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