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Friday, April 2, 1999 Published at 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK

World: Europe

Who are the US captives?

Ramirez, Stone and Gonzales' capture have brought the war home to the US

The three US servicemen, who are soon to face a Yugoslav military court, were all members of a UN force stationed in Macedonia near the border with Yugoslavia.

The US army says it has about 400 soldiers conducting a peacekeeping and observation mission in Macedonia. The force's mandate came to an end at the beginning of March.

The three Americans are:

Steven Gonzales, a special technician, 21, who comes from Huntsville, Texas. He has been in the army since 1996.

[ image: Steven Gonzales left college to enlist]
Steven Gonzales left college to enlist
He left his college, Texas A and M - where he won a scholarship - after only one year's study, to fulfil what his friends say was a life-long ambition to join an elite US military corps.

Apparently his family did not want him to enlist, believing he should finish his studies first.

His interests include science and soccer, and friends describe him as a likeable and intelligent athlete with a good sense of humour.

His friends recognised him immediately from his appearance Yugoslav TV on Thursday, because of his protruding ears.

"He used to wiggle his ears for us and make us laugh," said schoolfriend Kelly Williams. "That's how I knew it was him. It was like, you could not mistake those ears."

Both Mr Gonzales' parents work for the Texas correctional system, and prisons all over the state were asked to tie yellow ribbons to their entrances, until the soldiers are released.

Staff Sergeant Christopher Stone, 25, whose wife and five-year-old son live in San Antonio, has been in the army since 1991.

[ image: Christopher Stone: Wife and child in US]
Christopher Stone: Wife and child in US
He is described as a tough and likeable athlete who has the "gift of gab."

During their appearance on Yugoslav TV, Sergeant Stone, the tallest soldier standing in the middle, appeared to have more facial bruising than his colleagues.

At high school he was a member of the cross-country running team, and a club to warn of the dangers of students drinking and driving.

Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez, 24, from east Los Angeles, has served in the army since 1992.

[ image: Home of tight-knit Ramirez family in east LA]
Home of tight-knit Ramirez family in east LA
At school he was interested in wrestling and he enlisted in the army immediately after graduation. His hobbies include car maintenance and dogs.

Relatives say Sergeant Ramirez joined the army because he wanted to emulate his older brother, an army veteran who now works as a detective in the Los Angeles police force.

"Those two brothers are very close. It hit home because we're a very united family," Ramirez's great uncle Frank Jasso told reporters.

UN force in limbo

US President Bill Clinton said the capture of its personnel will not affect the Nato bombardment against Serbia, but he stressed "America looks after its own".

He said the three soldiers were illegally captured from Macedonia while working as UN peacekeepers.

[ image: Unpredep dug in on the border for six years]
Unpredep dug in on the border for six years
They were members of Unpredep, a 1,000-strong UN Preventative Deployment Force, which had patrolled the borders of Macedonia and Yugoslavia since the Bosnian war in 1993.

Its mandate should have expired last August, but it was extended for six months because of the increasing violence in Kosovo.

The force ceased its activities at the beginning of last month, when China vetoed another extension at the UN.

This was after Macedonia established diplomatic ties with Taiwan, whose independence China does not recognise.

Correspondents at the time said it would take Unpredep two months to be dismantled, although there was some speculation that soldiers could be transferred to Nato authority.

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