London, 11 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- British Defense Secretary George Robertson says the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade four days ago was a mistake that is deeply regretted. He also says that the strength of feeling in Beijing about the embassy bombing is what he calls "understandable."
In the past few days, in the largest public demonstrations since pro-democracy assemblies in Tiananmen Square 10 years ago, thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Beijing and other cities to protest the bombing, in which four Chinese died. Police formed a human shield to protect the U.S. and British embassies, but made no effort to prevent rocks being thrown at the buildings.
The British Foreign Office yesterday advised Britons not to travel to China. Meanwhile, Russia's Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, who condemned the bombing, is now flying to Beijing.
At his briefing in London yesterday, Robertson described the bombing as a "tragic error." He said:
"The Chinese Embassy was not deliberately targeted. NATO has made it clear, I make it clear, that it was not deliberately targeted. It was an error, It was a mistake, a tragedy that happened, but it [the embassy] was certainly not a target and could not conceivably have been a target."
Robertson also said that "lessons will be learned" from the incident. But he emphasized that the allied air attacks will continue. So far, he said, there have been some 4,500 NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia.
Robertson did not comment on media reports that NATO's raid on the embassy may have been planned on the basis of out-of-date maps of Belgrade. He said that the NATO strikes have "targeted, hit and progressively destroyed the military capability of Serbia".
According to the minister, the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic are being "permanently destroyed" and will not be rebuilt. He said patriotic, decent Serbs "must realize that Milosevic is destroying their country, and putting its whole future in jeopardy."
Robertson said he believed that diplomatic efforts to secure a settlement to the Kosovo crisis will go on.:
"I believe the diplomatic process will continue both in the United Nations and [among] the various envoys who are involved in that process because we are talking about a conflict which, if it spreads, will have repercussions well beyond the Balkans, I believe that both Russians and the Chinese recognize what kind of long-term dangers there will be if [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic were to get away with this kind of genocidal ethnic cleansing. So although there has been a reverse, the reality is that the diplomatic track will continue and may well be accelerated." Robertson also said he hopes that Russian and Ukrainian troops will be part of any eventual peace implementation force in Kosovo.
He described as "cynical" the recent decision by Belgrade to bring a case today against some NATO governments in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The action, he said, reflected the "duplicity of Milosevic and his cronies." At the same briefing, General Charles Guthrie, chief of Britain's defense staff, said NATO planes in the past 24 hours had struck successfully at Serb ground forces and at military and paramilitary installations. Guthrie said the strikes were staged against tactical targets in Serbia and Kosovo, including tanks and armored personnel carriers. Further attacks were mounted against an airfield and highway bridge at Nis, and, elsewhere, at a radio transmitter, a petrol, oil and lubricant site, radio relay sites, and a railway bridge.
According to Guthrie, there appears to have been a significant reduction in Yugoslav army and special activity in Kosovo, while activities by the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) seem to be on the increase. He said the UCK appears to be providing a "degree of refuge" for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Kosovar Albanians.
Lieutenant General Mike Jackson, the British commander of the NATO rapid reaction force in Macedonia, said the troops there are preparing for another possible influx of refugees. He said that last week 5,000 refugees crossed daily into Macedonia from Kosovo, but over the weekend the flow had slowed considerably.