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Yugoslavia: NATO Expresses 'Deep Regret' Over Civilian Deaths

London, 16 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A NATO spokesman says that one of its pilots made a mistake and bombed a refugee truck in Kosovo yesterday, but there is still confusion about the exact circumstances surrounding the attack.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told a news briefing in Brussels yesterday that the alliance "deeply regrets" the loss of civilian life in the air strike which he called "a tragic accident."

The NATO pilot responsible said he was convinced he was attacking the vehicles of Serb forces engaged in burning local villages, dropping the bomb "in good faith."

But NATO officials do not accept claims from Belgrade that more than 60 ethnic Albanian refugees were killed while travelling on tractors and cars near the southwest town of Djakovica. Serb officials called the incident a "deliberate war crime." But the number of those killed or injured in the misdirected air strike remains unclear.

The attack happened as the NATO air strikes aimed at halting what NATO officials call Serb "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo entered their fourth week.

Ethnic Albanian refugees who have now crossed over into the northern Albanian town of Kukes said that a NATO plane dropped two bombs on either side of a column of refugees, then it came back and dropped another one. They said there were no Serb soldiers or military vehicles in the column of refugees. A Western aid worker said other refugees said two Serb planes flew over the column and dropped four or five bombs, killing eight to ten people. It was impossible to reconcile the various reports.

Some of the refugees said they had been on the road for three weeks, and said the reports from Belgrade that they were "on their way home" were "not true." One woman said her husband and her 18-year-old daughter were killed in the attack.

Shea said the NATO pilot was operating over southwest Kosovo yesterday morning when he saw "many villages being burned" in an area where Yugoslav special police forces have been "conducting ethnic cleansing in recent days."

Shea said the NATO pilot attacked what he believed to be military vehicles in a convoy. He was convinced "he had the right target, and dropped the bomb in good faith."

The unidentified American pilot of the F16 aircraft, who was flying at 5,000 meters, reported that he was attacking a military convoy. Shea said the NATO bomb destroyed the lead vehicle "which we now believe to have been a civilian vehicle."

The news briefing heard a tape of the unidentified pilot describing what he saw on the ground immediately before striking at the convoy.

He said he observed a series of villages that had been set on fire. It appeared to him that Serb forces were working methodically from the north to the south through the villages, setting them ablaze, and forcing their Kosovar Albanian residents to leave

Close to Djakovica he saw a house that had just been set ablaze and, nearby, three dark green vehicles. He said he flew several times over the vehicles to satisfy himself they were military ones. Then he made a decision that "these were the people responsible for burning down the villages". He launched a laser bomb attack, destroying the lead vehicle.

Another NATO pilot then spotted three large military-type trucks, near where the first pilot had just attacked, and he carried out a second air strike on those vehicles.

NATO officials spent the past 24 hours examining the cockpit film from the attack for definitive evidence of what happened. As with a NATO air strike on a railway bridge last Monday, which killed 10 civilians, the pilots clearly had to make split-second decisions.

Unusually, NATO officials failed to show the cockpit film at yesterday's news briefing.

It was not clear from another video film, shot under Serb supervision, or from yesterday's news briefing, precisely what happened and where. Confusingly, the Serb-supervised video showed casualties in what seemed to be two entirely different locations.

NATO military spokesman General Guiseppe Marani said at least two convoys were struck in NATO air strikes Wednesday, including the laser bomb attack. Both were in the vicinity of Djakovica. He said that although NATO fliers have specific orders not to attack civilian targets, the "intense air campaign will inevitably result in loss of life among innocent civilians." Belgrade has offered to take a party of western journalists to the region, prompting hopes that they will be able to clear up the conflicting claims. Western officials called on Belgrade also to take reporters to the sites of alleged Serb "war crimes."

Earlier, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had expressed "deep concern" at reports NATO fliers were responsible, but then directed his remarks at the Yugoslav government of President Slobodan Milosevic. Cook said: "How dare they produce 'crocodile tears' for people killed in the conflict for which they themselves are responsible?"

Cook added: "I will not accept the criticism that is emanating loudly from Belgrade who organized the mass ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, who have caused thousands of civilian deaths in Kosovo, and who have displaced from their homes hundreds of thousands."

Shea said, "One tragic accident cannot and will not undermine our conviction that our cause is a just one, to end human suffering and to save lives."

Shea said the refugees in the Djakovica region had been forced from their homes by Serb forces, and were on the way to joining the 580,000 Kosovar Albanians who have already been expelled from Kosovo, mainly into Albania and Macedonia.

He said: "NATO pilots have orders to strike only at military targets. We have taken every possible precaution to avoid causing harming to civilians."

He added: "There has never been a military operation in history in which so many stringent measures have been taken to minimize harm to civilian lives and property." But western reporters said the images of the dead civilians at a remote location in Kosovo are a serious blow to the credibility and effectiveness of the NATO air campaign.

Talking about the overall situation, Shea said 5,750 Kosovar refugees were pushed into neighboring countries yesterday, while Serb forces continued to empty the city of Prizren. He said NATO officials have no idea of how many ethnic Albanians have been killed by Serb forces since the NATO air strikes began on March 24, but evidence gathered by allied governments suggest the toll could be 3,000 to 4,000.

The NATO military spokesman said alliance pilots flew six major operations over Kosovo yesterday, but poor weather caused other missions to be cancelled.

He said the NATO fliers hit command and control facilities, storage and petroleum dumps, and Serb forces in and around Kosovo. One Serb surface-to-air missile site was reported destroyed. He reported "significant anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile activity against the NATO aircraft." All returned safely to base. The international humanitarian relief effort has continued with 35 aid flights to Albania, delivering 350 tonnes of food, water, medical supplies, and tents. In addition, there were 18 flights into Macedonia, carrying 140 tonnes of food, water and other items.

NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana assured on Wednesday the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that the growing momentum of military flights into Tirana will not impede the international humanitarian airlift of supplies into the Albanian capital.

Shea said in the past 24 hours numerous refugees have been crossing from Kosovo into Macedonia, and "many thousands more may be on their way."

He said NATO's resolve has not weakened as a result of the civilian casualties, and its air campaign will continue until its key objectives are achieved. They include a pull-out of Serb forces from Kosovo, and the return of the refugees under international protection.

NATO officials were due to brief envoys from neighboring countries about the developments in Kosovo, as well as the misdirected NATO air strike. They include Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia.