War In The Balkans: US tries to halt deal on soldiers

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THE US intervened yesterday to try to halt an attempt by Cyprus to obtain freedom for the three US soldiers captured on the border between Macedonia and Kosovo. The initiative by a Cypriot leader sparked concerns in Washington that it would be outflanked diplomatically as it seeks to press on with the air war against Serbia.

Spyros Kyprianou, the acting President of Cyprus, said that Slobodan Milosevic "has conveyed to me his willingness to discuss the issue of releasing the three American captives and to hand them over to us". He left Larnaca airport for Athens and then Belgrade yesterday. Greece was expected to provide a plane to fly him to the Yugoslav capital, but Mr Kyprianou was asked by the US to delay his departure. He was still expected to arrive today.

The mission presented Nato with a difficult decision about whether to carry on bombing even as Mr Kyprianou was on his way to Belgrade. He requested a 24-hour ceasefire. The US warned him not to travel last night and said that it wanted to talk to him before he left. The allies were also scrambling to ensure that the meeting did not turn into an occasion for Mr Milosevic to negotiate over the conflict.

The families of the three soldiers would not comment but a spokesman for them said that they were not counting on the success of the mission. Cyprus has sided with Belgrade in its war with Nato and Mr Kyprianou said he hoped his visit could help to broker an end to the conflict. "I believe, I hope, my mission will succeed. If it does I think it will help improve the climate, it will satisfy the American people ... and will be proof of the Yugoslavian President's commitment to peaceful processes," he said. Cyprus and Yugoslavia were foundermembers of the Non-Aligned Movement, and Mr Kyprianou had close ties to Belgrade when he was president from 1978 to 1988, a time when the West put a high priority on good relations with Yugoslavia.

Mr Kyprianou said that there might be preconditions for the release of the soldiers, however, which could put a big stumbling block in the way of a deal. In particular, Nato ruled out any attempt to free the men by trading them for an end to the bombing of Yugoslavia. "As for paying a price, of course not, the mission goes on," the Nato spokesman Jamie Shea told a news conference. The US was cool, saying that there had been "some contact" with Mr Kyprianou but playing down hopes of a rapid breakthrough.

Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles, Specialist Steven Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas, and Staff Sgt Christopher Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Michigan, were captured on 31 March. The soldiers were part of a US unit that was patrolling the border in Macedonia. The operation had ceased to be a United Nations mission, and the unit had been attached to Nato. The soldiers had been in Macedonia for only four weeks, and split off from their colleagues to patrol the border. They appear to have crossed over into Kosovo, where they were captured. Their bloodied faces shocked Americans when they appeared on Yugoslav television.