War in the Balkans: Captives - Freed PoWs `poorly treated'

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THE COMMANDER of the three freed American PoWs suggested yesterday that they had been abducted from Macedonia and maltreated by their captors.

Major-General David Grange made the accusation after talking to the three soldiers, who were spending their first full day of freedom with their families at Landstuhl military hospital near a US base in Ramstein, southern Germany. General Grange told reporters: "They were poorly treated."

The general was particularly concerned about the images shown by Serbian television of the bruised prisoners shortly after their capture.

Medical examinations carried out at the US military hospital revealed a series of recent injuries. Staff Sergeant Christopher Stone had a broken nose, while Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez was recovering from a two-inch- long cut on his head, which had been stitched together by Serbian doctors, and several broken ribs.

"There was obviously some real physical stuff that went on," said Colonel Mack Blanton, chief of clinical services at the Landstuhl hospital. He added, however, that the three had been "generally taken care of adequately" in Yugoslavia.

The US authorities would not let the ex-prisoners answer reporters' questions yesterday, and did not say whether those injuries had been sustained during capture or in captivity. Nor could General Grange explain how the three had fallen into Serbian hands while patrolling the Macedonia- Yugoslav border, but he said they had not strayed over the frontier. "They were definitely in Macedonia, I am convinced," he said. This would suggest that the Serbs had crossed the border to snatch the soldiers.

Yesterday's statements appeared to contradict the prisoners' own accounts of their incarceration. All three had expressed gratitude to their captors on the day of their incarceration, though they had also spoken of "isolation". Psychologically, they are showing no sign of their month-long ordeal. They kept in good shape in their cells by doing press-ups, but all lost a little weight.

They emerged into the sun yesterday afternoon, hugging relatives on the hospital's balcony. They will be kept at Landstuhl at least until tomorrow, when President Bill Clinton will be paying them a visit.