War In The Balkans: For the US, war now has a face: the lost patrol of B Troop

THE PICTURES were grainy, staged, yet none the less dramatic for that - American soldiers with the Stars and Stripes clearly visible on their left shoulders, faces bruised and full of apprehension, appearing on Serbian television as prisoners of war.

Until yesterday morning, few Americans knew that their country had ground forces anywhere near Kosovo. But there they were on the morning television shows - a shocking reminder to Americans that war has a face. The three men of B Troop, 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry Regiment, captured on the border between Macedonia and Kosovo could have a huge impact in London, Brussels and Washington, as Nato confronts a war that is going wrong.

Staff Sgt Andrew A Ramirez, Staff Sgt Christopher J Stone and Specialist Steven M Gonzales set off from their base at Kumanovo at 7.30am on Wednesday on a routine patrol.

The 1st of the 4th is an old cavalry unit which long ago traded in its horses for Humvees, all-terrain vehicles. "One Quarter Cav" - as the unit is known - was deployed to Macedonia on 3 March for "Task Force Able Sentry", a mission to observe the border area. They were on a daytime reconnaissance exercise and the terrain they covered along the Macedonian border with Yugoslavia was rugged and hilly.

They carried only light weapons and were, it is claimed, under express orders not to cross into enemy territory. "They were observing the border and reporting on activities along the border," said Capt John Clearwater, spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division.

Tim Baker, a photographer from the force's newspaper, Stars and Stripes, spent Tuesday night and Wednesday on patrol with them. " They are just your basic, good soldiers, nothing special," he said.

"You just kind of shoot the breeze with them. It's very cold up there, so at night you didn't really talk, just tried to keep warm."

But the three men were in an area inhabited almost exclusively by Serbs with their intrinsic sympathies with their kith and kin in former Yugoslavia. Armed bands roam the area, and, it is suspected, supply information to Serbian forces. There had been reports that the Serbs were mining bridges and roads on the border to prevent Nato forces from crossing into Kosovo. There had been a build-up of Serb and KLA forces, and rising tension.

The lost patrol split off from the rest of the convoy in the afternoon. But at around 2.30pm, things suddenly became anything but routine. There were frantic messages back to base that they were under fire and surrounded. Then there were was silence. Search-and-rescue teams numbering around a hundred, from the 1st Army Division were immediately scrambled to the area of the radio message on British, French and Italian helicopters. But despite an exhaustive search they failed to find the patrol.

The first reports hit the news wires and television at about 7.30pm in Washington, but there was confusion. At midnight, President Bill Clinton was informed, but still there was no news. Two hours later, the first pictures appeared. "The next we saw, they were badly beaten up and shown on television in Belgrade," General Wesley Clark, Nato's Supreme Commander, said yesterday.

Coming so soon after the loss of the supposedly invisible "Stealth" fighter-bomber, the capture of the soldiers is a further embarrassing blow to American military prestige. An inquest is already under way.

The Yugoslav government says the patrol was in Kosovo; the US says it was in Macedonia. The unit had been in country for only a few weeks, though the military says it had trained for the mission for six months. "These men knew the terrain. Every indication that we've had is they were operating well within their boundaries [of Macedonia]." The Humvees had satellite navigation equipment.

The status of the unit was unclear. "Able Sentry" had been part of the cumbersomely titled United Nations Preventive Deployment force, whose mandate had come to an end four days earlier when China vetoed it. The State Department said the soldiers were in "non-combatant status", but the White House told Congress last week that Task Force Able Sentry was to be assigned to Nato for protection purposes. Its future does not seem to have been finalised in detail.

For the moment, there is only shock, anger and fear. "We have all seen the pictures, we don't like it, we don't like the way they are treated and we have a long memory of these things," said General Clark.

Staff Sgt Stone's father, Jim Stone, speaking from his home in Port Huron, Michigan, said yesterday: "We simply don't know what is going on. We are pretty much in a state of shock. This is not the sort of thing you expect."

Having milked the capture of the soldiers for utmost publicity value - by parading them on television in violation of the Geneva Convention's rules against humiliating captive soldiers - the Serbs still made a stab at appearing correct. The Yugoslavian Vice-President, Vuk Draskovic, said: "Nothing wrong will happen to them. We are respecting the enemy. We will be sticking to the terms of the Geneva Convention, you can be sure of that." He then added more ominously: "They are going to face Serb justice".

Tanjug, the Yugoslav news agency, said yesterday that the three would be tried under military law.

Mr Clinton, speaking at the Norfolk naval base in Virginia, warned: "President Milosevic should make no mistake, the United States takes care of its own." But for the boys of the lost patrol, it may prove to be a long drawn out stay in the care of the Yugoslav military.

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