40 dead but, Milosevic says he'll free POW's

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The Independent Online
YUGOSLAV PRESIDENT, Slobodan Milosevic, last night announced that he would release three American prisoners of war to the visiting US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, raising hopes that the Belgrade regime might be willing to talk peace after nearly six weeks of armed conflict with Nato.

Mr Jackson, who appealed to Mr Milosevic for the release of the soldiers in a meeting yesterday, said they would leave for Croatia today with his delegation. From there they will fly to Germany and then the United States. The three - Andrew Ramirez, 24, Christopher Stone, 25, and Steven Gonzales, 21 - were captured while patrolling the Yugoslavia-Macedonia border on 31 March.

The official Yugoslav news agency, Tanjug, said Mr Milosevic decided to free the soldiers in recognition of Mr Jackson's efforts to achieve peace and understanding between peoples. The Yugoslav leader said: "We don't see them as enemies, but... as victims of militarism and war."

Reverend Jackson said he would be carrying a letter from President Milosevic to President Bill Clinton, outlining his views on ending the crisis. The letter would include "a desire to meet with him and to take this matter to resolution", as well as a renewed appeal for Nato to halt the bombing campaign because it is "traumatising the people". Yesterday a Nato missile hit a bus crossing a bridge north of Kosovo's capital, Pristina, killing 23 people, according to Tanjug. An hour later the bridge was attacked again, injuring a doctor on the scene.

Mr Jackson said he hoped both sides would "seize this moment" and "in the coming days, we shall urge all parties to seize upon this initiative" and undertake new negotiations to end the crisis.

Efforts to secure a diplomatic solution to the crisis will be stepped up by the Russians this week. Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia's special envoy to the Balkans, is planning to visit Britain for talks with the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, is planning to travel to the Balkans this week amid growing international criticism of Britain's reluctance to accept refugees from the Kosovo crisis.