Effort to free U.S. soldiers may fall short
Cypriot envoy to meet Milosevic Friday
April 8, 1999
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- A mission that held promise for the quick release of three U.S. Army soldiers captured by Yugoslavia faced obstacles as a Cypriot envoy flew to Belgrade to see President Slobodan Milosevic. Their meeting was set for Friday.
On his arrival in the Yugoslav capital on Thursday, Spyros Kyprianou, speaker of the Cypriot parliament, said the Americans might be freed during the long Orthodox Easter weekend now under way.
But Yugoslav government sources told CNN there is "no expectation" that the soldiers will be released soon.
Washington seemed to share the same view.
"We don't view (the release of the soldiers) as a done deal," a U.S. official told CNN. "This could drag out. This may go nowhere."
State Department spokesman James Rubin said the release of the three soldiers had to be unconditional.
"We understand Mr. Kyprianou is proceeding on this basis as well," Rubin said, adding that "any attempt to use the three as bargaining chips is both illegal and immoral."
The Cypriot envoy would not reveal details on what he and Milosevic would discuss, but Kyprianou was optimistic about the outcome.
"I expect to have very friendly and constructive negotiations," Kyprianou told reporters in Belgrade. "I hope to have good discussions with President Milosevic on humanitarian aspects."
President Clinton said Thursday that three U.S. soldiers being held in Yugoslavia "never should have been detained in the first place" -- and that he supports "anything honorable that would secure" their release.
The president made his comments as the speaker of the Cypriot Parliament was preparing for talks with Yugoslav officials in Belgrade to try to get the soldiers released.
"We would like to see the servicemen released. They never should have been detained in the first place," Clinton told a news conference held jointly with visiting Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.
"They had nothing to do with the operations against Serbia. And I will be for anything honorable that would secure their release."
But as Kyprianou arrived in the Yugoslav capital under a NATO safe-passage promise -- and the Greek C-130 Hercules transport plane that had flown him to Belgrade returned to Athens without him -- there were several other developments that made the release of the soldiers seem less likely.
Israel, meantime, asked Russia to use "its full influence" with the Yugoslav government to work for the release of the three servicemen.
Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who was to see U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Washington on Friday, planned to travel over the weekend to Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
The plane carrying Kyprianou landed safely in Belgrade despite the continuing NATO air attacks, which, on Thursday, were in their 16th day.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told reporters traveling with Secretary of Defense William Cohen in Germany that NATO had arranged to ensure that no allied bombing missions would interfere with the flight.
"What we did try to do to is maximize security for the mission," Rubin said.
U.S. officials told CNN that a temporary halt in NATO airstrikes on Belgrade -- timed to begin with Kyprianou's arrival -- would last only two hours, until 7 p.m. (1 p.m. EDT/1700 GMT).
Previously, U.S. and NATO officials said airstrikes would not be halted in order to secure the soldiers' release.
Kyprianou had asked for a 24-hour NATO cease-fire while he pursued his mission.
"What Mr. Kyprianou has asked (for) is safe passage to Belgrade and this has been given, so he is flying safely," Erato Marcoullis, the Cypriot ambassador to the United States, told CNN.
"During his stay, it was assured that he will be safe until his return, hopefully with the three GIs," she told CNN from Washington.
Kyprianou arrived in Athens Wednesday -- en route to Belgrade -- after saying the Yugoslav government was willing to turn over the three American soldiers.
His flight from Athens, which left at 3:20 p.m. (8:20 a.m. EDT/1220 GMT) on Thursday, was delayed about four hours as he awaited clearance from the Yugoslav military to fly into Belgrade.
Kyprianou was traveling to Yugoslavia on a humanitarian mission and not as a negotiator, Marcoullis said.
If necessary, the ambassador said, Kyprianou would stay overnight. It will "depend on developments," she said.
Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles; Spc. Steven Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas; and Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Michigan; were captured March 31 near the border of Macedonia and Kosovo.
Macedonia is an independent country that was once part of Yugoslavia. Kosovo is a province in the Yugoslav republic of Serbia.
NATO says the soldiers were noncombat troops under its command and were on a routine border patrol. Belgrade says they were captured on Yugoslav territory.
Families of captured GIs await word on rescue mission
Extensive list of Kosovo-related sites
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