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Monday, May 3, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How U.S. Captives Were Freed -- Talks With Milosevic Were Confrontational, Emotional

Los Angeles Times

A member of the delegation that won the release of three U.S. prisoners of war said yesterday that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic listened to their pleas for three hours, showing moments of frustration and anger, and then sent them away with promises only to "think about it."

But shortly after the five Americans left the old palace where Milosevic was holed up, Yugoslavia's foreign minister called them to his house and told them Milosevic had decided that the three U.S. soldiers could go free.

With the Rev. Jesse Jackson leading them, the Americans held hands and prayed, the delegation member said.

"It was very emotional. We all had tears in our eyes," said Dr. Nazir Uddin Khaja, a Los Angeles physician and president of the American Muslim Council, who was among the five delegates at the meeting. "Even the foreign minister was visibly moved."

Yet at the beginning of the at-times confrontational talks, Milosevic seemed disconcerted when Jackson reached for his hand in prayer, and the Yugoslav president waited a long moment before taking it, Khaja said.

The physician also had mixed feelings when Milosevic greeted them at the door of the palace at noon Saturday.

"It was an emotional, gut-wrenching experience to go there and shake hands with (Milosevic) because of the very idea of him being responsible for such vast destruction, killing, loss of life, displacement of people."

Milosevic led them into a drawing room of the palace, which now

serves as one of the alternating residences the Yugoslav president has used since the NATO bombing began March 24, Khaja said in a telephone interview from Germany.

Jackson, as he often does in his self-styled diplomatic efforts, called the group to stand in a circle and pray, holding hands.

"That obviously completely took (Milosevic) by surprise. He didn't know what to make of that," Khaja said. "Jackson was standing next to him and reaching for his hand. He was very slow to respond, and I could see that expression of confusion."

When Jackson outlined the American delegation's views - calling for a halt to the killing in Kosovo, the return of ethnic Albanian refugees to the province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, and the installation there of a U.N. peacekeeping force - Milosevic gave them "a lecture that was 180 degrees opposite of our position."

Milosevic portrayed NATO as the aggressor and himself as the victim. He gave a lengthy recounting of "all the good things he was trying to do for the region and how the U.S. has completely derailed his plans," Khaja said. "He wanted to establish what a visionary and popular leader he is."

At times, the Yugoslav leader showed frustration and anger "at what he perceived was an outrage that NATO and America is unleashing on him," Khaja said. "It was really high drama."

At one point, the delegates underlined that their case was not against the Yugoslav people. Khaja said Milosevic asked them, "Then who is responsible?"

"I said, `You are responsible,' " Khaja said. "He was a little surprised. I said, `You are, in the court of public opinion.' It is (Milosevic) who is held totally responsible. The whole group said that in one way or another."

Another member of the delegation, The Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, an Orthodox priest from Long Island, said they took care to avoid engaging in any political or diplomatic negotiations with Milosevic and addressed him entirely on "moral and religious" grounds.

Kishkovsky said they spoke frankly about what the future might hold for him and his country. "We told him that we were concerned about all the people who are suffering . . . but our perception was that things would get worse," he said.

At one point, Khaja said, Jackson took Milosevic out into the garden and sat with him on a low wall under a tree for a 45-minute tete-a-tete.

Milosevic eventually suggested he might free one soldier - the oldest, who has a wife and child, Jackson today told ABC's "Good Morning America." Jackson pointed out that the soldier - Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone, 25 - is white and the other two are Hispanic, and said releasing only Stone would "send a very ugly signal back home."

Jackson said he eventually persuaded Milosevic that since the three had been captured together, they should be freed together.

At the end of the meeting, there was another prayer session and Milosevic said, "Let me think about it," Khaja said. A short time later, the Americans were summoned to the foreign minister's home for the announcement that the three soldiers would be freed.

"I felt that moment was enormous," Khaja said. "One could feel palpably the weight of history and the burden of hope. . . . It may set the course for all of the warring parties to at least seek a more sane solution. . . . "

Kishkovsky said he thought Milosevic's abrupt decision to release the POWs was probably based on a hard-headed calculation of his self-interest. "He probably played a card which was available to him," Kishkovsky said. "Our hope is that there will now be movement on his part and on NATO's part."

When the three soldiers were released, there were hugs and tears, and even some of Yugoslav authorities seemed moved, Khaja said. The three released men were given a cellular telephone to call home.

Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, 24, of East Los Angeles, called his mother, Vivian, and told her, "I'm free."

"He got all choked up and said, `I love you,' " said Rabbi Steven Jacobs, a member of the delegation who did not attend the meeting with Milosevic. "Each one of them said the same thing. They had tears in their eyes. They finally believed that they were really free."

The delegation traveled to Croatia, then flew to Germany.

The former prisoners - Ramirez, Stone and Spc. Steven Gonzales, 22 - passed a preliminary medical examination today, though doctors said that Stone had suffered a broken nose and that Ramirez had broken ribs.

Each had a private reunion today with family members who had arrived in Germany on overnight flights from the United States.

Material from The Associated Press and Newsday is included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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