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Yugoslavia: NATO Defends Bombing Of Electrical Power Sources

Brussels/Belgrade; 14 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO spokesman Jamie Shea says alliance officials are investigating Serb allegations that at least 80 ethnic Albanians civilians were killed in an air strike on a village in southwest Kosovo.

Belgrade officials also claim that more than 50 civilians were wounded when NATO planes dropped cluster bombs on the village overnight. Shea said he could not confirm the incident, and there was no independent corroboration of the claim.

Shea also told the daily NATO news briefing in Brussels today that alliance aircraft do not target civilians. He said he was not going to speak on the incident until he had the facts. He added that NATO pilots "try to completely minimize" the prospect of harm to civilians but can't fully exclude it.

The alleged air strike happened near the city of Prizren in a region which has seen a large number of NATO air strikes on Serb military targets in recent days.

Reports from Belgrade say western journalists were being bused to the areas to see the reported damage at first hand. Shea showed a series of photographs which he said illustrated the destruction of Kosovar Albanian homes by Serb military, police and paramilitary forces, and also what he said were mass graves in Kosovo.

Shea also said there are reports, which cannot be independently verified, that Serb forces have put Kosovar Albanians on a bridge to serve as human shields. This follows a series of NATO air strikes on road and railway bridges.

NATO's military spokesman General Walter Jertz said that NATO pilots flew 679 missions in the past 24 hours. He said all NATO aircraft returned safely to base.

He confirmed today that NATO has used depleted uranium weapons in Kosovo campaign, although not in recent weeks. Ecologists say these weapons, which do n-o-t emit radiation, can cause evironmental damage.

Jertz confirmed that NATO fliers have had to jettison a number of bombs in the Adriatic in "rare cases where weaponry cannot be dropped because of a technical malfunction on the aircraft." Italian fishermen have complained of finding bombs in their nets.

At an earlier British Defense Ministry briefing in London, Rear Admiral Simon Moore described NATO's operations in the past 24 hours as "intensive."

"Air attacks were launched on Serb ground forces near Prizren in Kosovo, and in the Stimle area [of Kosovo]. Tanks, military vehicles, armored personnel carriers, mortars, and other fielded forces were all targeted. NATO aircraft also successfully attacked border posts, radar installations, airfields, and military buildings in Kosovo and in Serbia."

Moore also said that British planes had struck a road bridge, an airfield at Pristina and troops and vehicles on the ground.

Moore noted, too, that NATO troops are beginning the construction of additional refugee camps in Albania for many of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees who have fled what Alliance officials call Serb ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

NATO has defended its decision to cause electric power outages in Yugoslavia overnight, saying disruption to civilians is minor when compared with the brutality Serb forces inflict on Kosovar Albanians. The Serb-run media center in Kosovo is accusing NATO of killing at least 50 civilians and wounding dozens more in a bombing raid on the village of Koris in southern Kosovo. NATO said today it is investigating the report but could neither confirm nor deny it.

Concerning the power outages, Spokesman Jamie Shea said in Brussels today that NATO regrets any civilian inconvenience. But he insisted the alliance's aim was to disrupt "the Yugoslav war machine." Yugoslavia's three largest cities -- Belgrade, Nis and Novi Sad -- as well as other regions, suffered electrical blackouts following NATO air raids overnight. Electricity is still disrupted in some areas.

Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin is back in Moscow from Finland today. Speaking to reporters, he dismissed charges that Russia is being too conciliatory in current diplomatic negotiations.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was in Brussels today to brief NATO Secretary General Javier Solana on the diplomatic efforts. He said wide differences between Russia and NATO still exist on a number of issues, particularly Moscow's demand for an end to the bombing campaign. But he said there is also much common ground.

Kosovo ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova was in London today for talks with British leaders, including Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Rugova said he is in talks with exiled Kosovar politicians about preparations for returning to their homeland after the conflict is over.

Meanwhile, a prosecutor with the UN war crimes tribunal says efforts are being made to gather information from Kosovo refugees about atrocities allegedly committed by Serb forces in the province.

Deputy Prosecutor Graham Blewitt told reporters today in The Hague that the tribunal investigators in Albania and Macedonia are working "around the clock" to interview refugees but it is still too early to confirm reports of widespread atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Blewitt reiterated earlier demands by Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour that the tribunal be given access to the scenes of alleged atrocities in Kosovo itself. Yugoslav government has repeatedly refused to provide access.