Washington, 16 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen says NATO's bombing in Kosovo that hit a civilian vehicle was a regrettable error.
Cohen told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that it appears the incident on the day before took place under "extraordinary circumstances" and during the course of an intense two-hour campaign in which NATO pilots came under fire from Serb ground forces.
He explained: "We go to extraordinary lengths to reduce the risk to innocent civilians. I don't think any other nation or combination of democracies would consider going through what we go through in the way of planning and training and exercising every conceivable precaution in order to reduce harming innocent civilians. And we should take great pride in that."
In remarks to newspaper editors in San Francisco, California, U.S. President Bill Clinton also commented on the issue.
Clinton said he regrets that civilians were killed and injured but added that such casualties are "inevitable" in a large-scale air war. He said it would be wrong to stop the air campaign because of such a mistake.
Cohen said although all the facts about the incident are still being collected, it is clear that this is not the case of an isolated aircraft going after a convoy unrelated to the air campaign itself. He added that there is still some question as to whether or not Serb forces were intermingled with the civilians in the convoy.
Cohen said Yugoslav President Slobodan's Milosevic's claims on state-television that the attack was a deliberate massacre of civilians by NATO forces were "grotesque."
He said: "For [Milosevic] to talk in terms of atrocities when in fact he has caused the displacement and the refugee status in excess of a million people, where he has sent in 40,000 of his military, paramilitary, police, hooded thugs to savagely kill and slaughter at random and on a wholesale basis these innocent people -- for him to talk about atrocities when an error occurred on the part of someone trying to carry out a mission to save their lives I think is one of the most grotesque statements that I could conceive of."
Cohen said that despite the accident, NATO bombing will continue and in fact, intensify. He warned that while the campaign will not be quick, easy or neat, NATO is fully determined to see all of its objectives met.
Cohen said NATO is making " real progress" in Yugoslavia after 21 days of the alliance's air offensive against Belgrade. He said 100 percent of Yugoslavia's petroleum refining processing has been taken out and 50 percent of the country's ammunition production capability has been destroyed. NATO is now intensifying attacks against Serb command and control communications systems, and focusing particularly on Milosevic's army headquarters, staging areas and ground forces, he added.
NATO is also seeing signs that the bombings are finally taking effect, Cohen said. The morale of Serb forces is plummeting, he said, causing numerous soldiers to desert. He added that Milosevic is also beginning to have trouble getting young Serb men to join his forces, and said many are fleeing the country altogether.
Both Cohen and General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who also testified in front of the senate committee on Wednesday, acknowledged the air campaign could continue for many more weeks or even months
But while both men reemphasized that using ground troops is not under consideration at this time, they acknowledged that there are still "probabilities" that the U.S. will see casualties before the campaign is over.
Shelton said: "I think the prospect for casualties remains very real and high. There is no such thing as a risk-free military operation."
But Senator John Warner (R-Virginia), Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, told Cohen that NATO sent the "wrong signal" to Milosevic by ruling out ground troops.
Warner urged Cohen and NATO leaders to consider positioning ground forces in key locations on the Yugoslav-Serbian border to "limit Milosevic's freedom and the disposition of his ground forces," and prepare him for a possible ground attack by NATO forces.
"NATO should begin now perhaps to move heavy equipment into the region, within striking distance of Yugoslavia, both to threaten Milosevic and to lend protection to countries such as Albania which are now threatened by Milosevic's troops crossing the border."
Also on in Washington on Wednesday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a meeting of a House of Representatives Appropriations Committee that Milosevic's brutal treatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo has only strengthened NATO's determination to continue its campaign.
She said: We are prepared to inflict such damage on his military that he either accepts the outcome we seek, or the balance of power in Kosovo will shift against him at a time when his actions, far from destroying his opposition, are galvanizing its strength and determination."
She again defended the U.S. role in the Balkan campaign, saying stability in that region was essential for stability in Europe as a whole and which, in turn, is essential to the United States. She said the unity of the 19-member NATO military alliance during its air offensive against Yugoslavia has been remarkable, adding that NATO's European members are carrying their fair share of the effort -- both militarily and financially.