War In The Balkans: The Response - Yugoslavia plays clever with propaganda game

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The Independent Online
THE YUGOSLAVS know how to play the game. They watched the Iranians hold America's embassy staff hostage. They observed how the Lebanese held US hostages and threatened them with execution. They noted how Saddam Hussein took hostages before the 1991 Gulf War - the Iraqi military were once trained in Yugoslavia - and how the Americans always faltered the moment one of "their boys" was under threat.

So the Serbs took three of America's soldiers and announced to the world that they would be "put on trial" - sure enough, on cue, the world's only superpower is putting up the yellow ribbons again.

According to the Serbs, "criminal proceedings" are being instituted against James Stone, Andrew Ramirez and Steven Gonzales by Jovica Jovanovic, a member of the Kosovo Provisional Executive Council, the provincial - and Serb-run - local authority in Pristina. The local Yugoslav 2nd Army Corps claimed that the Americans came from a "reconnaissance detachment" of the US 1st Infantry Division stationed in Germany.

For its part, the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug carried a report yesterday from Skopje, the Macedonian capital, stating that inhabitants of the Macedonian village of Male Katarinovac, close to the border, had seen the three soldiers cross into Kosovo.

A villager was quoted as saying: "We heard the Yugoslav border guards warning them to stop - we were surprised to see the Jeep keep on going in the direction of Slavojevac village, on the other side of the border."

Nato is claiming that the capture of the soldiers was "good propaganda" for President Milosevic. But it was nothing of the kind. It was, instead, a masterful way of persuading America to turn the world's attention away from Kosovo's tragedy by demonstrating Washington's real priorities: the preservation of American lives.

The Kosovo Albanians, the execution squads, the house-burning and ethnic cleansing, and the alleged detention camps - all went by the board as the world concentrated its attention, not on half a million abused Muslims who speak a strange language, but on three home-town boys who speak English and appeared, bruised but very much alive, on Belgrade television a few hours after their seizure.

But is there a trial? Does Nato - or do the American people - really think that the mayor of Pristina is going through the motions of arranging a court appearance; that amid the chaos of Kosovo a military tribunal is going to be formally convened, complete with judge and jury?

It seems unlikely, however dramatically the Serbs report it. As one Belgrade messenger, Radomir Diklic, said yesterday, it is "part of the theatre of the war". But he added - like many other Serbs - that he believed other Nato personnel had been taken prisoner, including pilots, but that "our military are not releasing all the details because they don't want to raise tensions".

As usual, the capture of the American soldiers - the BBC, Serbs have noted, call it an "abduction" - has played low on the Yugoslav news schedules, following long after national television reports on Serb refugees from Kosovo, Nato bombing that caused three more Serb civilian deaths, and the Nato destruction of the old girder bridge in Novi Sad, which has cut off electricity from much of the town and effectively closed the Danube to traffic.

Serbs in Belgrade are now walking the great river bridges in Belgrade each night as "human shields" against further attacks of this kind in the capital. In Yugoslavia, three American soldiers do not take precedence over these events.

More important in Belgrade was the appearance of Ibrahim Rugova, the Kosovo Albanian leader, with Mr Milosevic on Thursday night. The Government here has now released a copy of a document bearing Mr Rugova's signature - the same signature he appended to last month's Paris-Kosovo peace accord - demanding an end to the air strikes on Serbia. He may very well be an unwilling guest of Mr Milosevic, but he realises now - all too well - that the West will not risk a single soldier's life for the Kosovo Albanians who so solemnly trusted their fate to Nato.