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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Milosevic Rival Hits Regime's 'Lying'

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Three U.S. soldiers held captive for much of NATO's month-long air campaign against Yugoslavia met briefly Monday with the international Red Cross chief, who says chances of their release any time soon are slim.

Meanwhile, Western officials pointed to critical comments by a Yugoslav deputy premier as evidence of a crack in Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime.

In Bonn, a German official said NATO has destroyed about one-third of Yugoslavia's air defenses. And a Kosovo Albanian rebel leader said Serb forces are taking refuge in Albanian homes to hide from the air assault.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, Cornelio Sommaruga, gave no information about the soldiers' physical condition but said a Red Cross doctor and a delegate would visit the soldiers Tuesday. After also meeting with Milosevic, however, he voiced pessimism for chances of their release any time soon.

"International humanitarian law says prisoners of war would be liberated at the end of active hostilities. Regrettably, we are not at this point at the moment,'' Sommaruga said.

The U.S soldiers were shown right after their March 31 capture near the Macedonia border on Serb TV with bruised faces and cuts. The Red Cross had previously been denied access to the soldiers, who are believed to be held in or near Belgrade.

"I had the occasion to see them and shake their hands and I had a short talk with all three,'' Sommaruga said at a news conference. "It was not possible to have a full-fledged ICRC visit in accord with the provisions of the Geneva Convention.''

He said he had given the men letters from their families and given them forms on which to write back.

Held captive are Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles; Specialist Steven Gonzalez, 21, of Huntsville, Texas; and Staff Sergeant Christopher Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Michigan. They had only been shown on Serbian television, and their condition was uncertain.

There was no immediate explanation from the government of the reason for the long delay in access to the men. Sommaruga said Milosevic assured him: "There is not one single prisoner in our country that you cannot visit.''

Air raid alerts sounded Monday afternoon in Novi Sad and Nis, Yugoslavia's No. 2 and 3 cities, signaling the NATO attacks were continuing. The boom of air defense systems firing was heard in Novi Sad. Earlier Monday, NATO missiles blasted an already-damaged bridge over the Danube River, sending the last of three rail and road crossings in Yugoslavia's second-largest city crashing into the water.

NATO has said it was destroying the bridges in the northern city to prevent troop deployments south to Kosovo. The alliance has targeted infrastructure in Yugoslavia's north amid speculation that a ground campaign could be launched from the northern border with NATO member Hungary.

Western officials said there were signs that the air campaign was succeeding in demoralizing Serb resistance. They cited remarks Sunday by Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister, Vuk Draskovic, who called on Yugoslav leaders to "stop lying to the people in Serbia, and finally tell them the truth.''

"The people should be told that NATO is not facing a breakdown, that Russia will not help Yugoslavia militarily and that the world public opinion is against us,'' Draskovic told local Studio B television.

Draskovic, once the main opposition leader before joining Milosevic's government last year, said Serbia is isolated and seriously weakened after more than a month of allied bombardment.

"People who lead this country must say clearly where we stand,'' Draskovic said. "They must say what will be left of Serbia in 20 days if the bombing continues.''

Later, Draskovic told CNN that the Serb leadership must acknowledge that "we cannot defeat NATO'' and "we must respect this reality.''While Draskovic's statements do not necessarily reflect those of Milosevic's, his openly defiant comments could signal a rift.

"It remains to be seen as to whether he will be allowed to continue to tell the truth,'' British Defense Secretary George Robertson said Monday. "I think it shows that inside the system the facade of unity is cracking wide open.''

In Bonn, Hans-Peter Kirchbach, inspector-general of the German armed forces, said NATO had already destroyed about 30 percent of Yugoslavia's air defense capability. He said the alliance had flown only about half its planned missions in recent days because of bad weather.

A Kosovo Albanian rebel commander, contacted by satellite telephone from Vienna, Austria, said NATO attacks were having an impact on Serb forces operating in the province.

The commander, Ramush Haradinaj, said Serb troops are now hiding in villages where NATO knows ethnic refugees are staying, forcing the civilians into basements while taking over the rest of the houses.NATO's ability to attack Serb forces in Kosovo is expected to be bolstered once U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters go into action. NATO military spokesman Colonel Konrad Freytag told reporters in Washington that the "full package'' of the Apache force is now in Albania, including supporting ground-based rocket launchers which have been deployed near the border with Kosovo.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told reporters Monday that completion of the Apache deployment brings total U.S. combat strength in Albania to 5,300.

Meanwhile, refugees continued to flow out of Kosovo on Monday. About 3,000 of them were crossing the border into Macedonia on Monday, mostly from the area around Kosovo's capital, Pristina.Most arrived by train and were put in a transit camp near the no-man's land in between Macedonia and Yugoslavia.