NATO searches for answers in Kosovo convoy killings
Pentagon suggests Serbs responsible
April 15, 1999
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- Amid conflicting reports over who was to blame for an attack on a convoy of Kosovo Albanians that left dozens dead, NATO forces continued their 23-day-old air campaign against Yugoslavia Thursday, sending plumes of flames into the sky near major cities.
Air raid sirens sounded in Belgrade earlier than usual Thursday evening, followed two hours later by heavy bursts of sustained anti-aircraft fire.
Serbian television showed blasts in Yugoslavia's second largest city, Novi Sad, and reported fires raging in the town of Pancevo, northeast of the capital, where one of the country's main oil refineries has been hit in previous air raids.
Serbian television also said explosions shook the Belgrade suburb of Zemon, the site of Yugoslavia's air defense headquarters, and reported an attack on Belgrade's international airport at Surcin.
In the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, witnesses said bombs fell outside the city of Podgorica, and an explosion rocked a military air base.
Yugoslav officials again denounced NATO airstrikes they claim targeted ethnic Albanians trying to flee Kosovo.
One civilian convoy on the road between the towns of Djakovica and Prizren came under fire Wednesday and as many as 85 people were killed, Serb authorities said. Television footage showed gruesome images of burned and bloodied bodies scattered along the roadside.
Yugoslavia also accused NATO of hitting the village of Srbica, killing seven ethnic Albanians, including children.
"This is the worst picture of a humanitarian catastrophe brought on by the NATO bombings," said Yugoslav Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic.
Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian deputy prime minister, accused NATO of killing civilians on purpose. He said NATO knew it could "accomplish nothing by striking military targets" and was therefore "taking revenge by bombing civilians."
"The aggressor who behaves in this way has lost all military compass," he said.
Pentagon officials acknowledged Thursday that NATO pilots did attack three other convoys near Djakovica, but stressed that those convoys were different from the one with the high civilian death toll, as shown on Serbian television.
The Pentagon suggested that Serb forces, perhaps a MiG fighter plane, struck that fourth convoy, and that Belgrade pinned the blame on NATO. It cited accounts by refugees who told international observers that a Yugoslav MiG made several passes at a convoy and dropped bombs.
At the same time, Pentagon sources said they could not rule out the possibility that NATO was responsible.
NATO planes targeted two convoys south of Djakovica -- one a purely military convoy and the other a mixed convoy of military vehicles and civilians, Pentagon officials said.
The Pentagon said it believes only military targets were hit.
Earlier Thursday, NATO admitted an pilot may have bombed civilians in a convoy north of Djakovica. The pilot believed he was attacking a military vehicle, NATO officials said.
In a taped recording played for journalists at a NATO briefing, one unidentified pilot who flew the mission in southwestern Kosovo said he spotted what appeared to be a military convoy in the vicinity of several burning villages.
"I make a decision at that point that these are the people responsible for burning down the villages that I've seen so far," the pilot said. "I roll in, put my system on the lead vehicle and execute a laser-guided bomb attack on that vehicle, destroying the lead vehicle."
Low on fuel, the pilot left the area, telling the crew that was flying in to replace him what he'd seen. That team also carried out an attack, the pilot said.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said NATO now believes the lead convoy vehicle struck by the first pilot was a civilian vehicle. He said that NATO "deeply regrets" the loss of civilian lives in the attack, and stressed that the alliance was taking "every precaution" to prevent such tragic occurrences.
"There has never been a military operation in history with so many stringent measures taken to minimize harm," he said.
A CNN reporter taken to the area south of Djakovica on Thursday said he saw wrecked tractors, burned villages and six bodies, including one of a child, in a morgue.
Serb authorities took CNN's Alessio Vinci to a 30-mile (48-kilometer) section of the road between Djakovica and Prizren where they said four attacks on convoys of refugees had occurred.
Vinci said at one site, three tractor and a minibus had been destroyed. "Personal belongings are scattered around the area here. There are two huge craters, one on the road and one nearby," said Vinci.
One of the refugees who said he was on the road told Vinci in the presence of Serb authorities that the convoy had not been accompanied by Serb military forces or police. He said that at the time of the attack the ethnic Albanians were on their own.
Other refugees told Vinci they had been ordered to leave their village on the border between southern Kosovo and Albania by Serb forces who said there was going to be too much bombing in the area for them to stay.
They said they left and went to Djakovica where Serb forces sent them on to Prizren. The refugees told Vinci, in the presence of soldiers, that the army was being "cooperative" in attempting to move them away from the battle zone.
On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook accused Milosevic and the Yugoslav government of crying "crocodile tears" over a conflict they started.
"I have to say that I will not accept the criticism that has been emanating from Belgrade from the very people who organize 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 of people in Kosovo," Cook said. "How dare they produce crocodile tears for people killed in the conflict for which they themselves are responsible."
Cook said it is important to keep in mind why the civilians were in the convoy in the first place. "I would like to ask President Milosevic about the refugees in that convoy. Would he like to remind us why they were refugees in the first place, what was it they were fleeing from, where were they being taken?" asked Cook.
Shea said the incident would not hamper NATO's operation in Yugoslavia.
"There has been no letup at all in the air campaign," said Shea. "Last night for example, despite some anti-aircraft artillery fire, we engaged very successfully a large number of targets throughout Yugoslavia, including, of course, Kosovo, a controller reporting center, ammunition depot, military airport at Pristina, army barracks at Pec, fuel production storage facilities in two places, bridges, lines of communication, an airfield at Nis, and so on ... this will go on and this will succeed."
Overnight Wednesday into Thursday, Belgrade, Pristina, Kursumlija, Krusevac, Kragujevac, Cacak, Uzice, Valjevo, Nis and Kraljevo were all hit by NATO airplanes, according to Serb television.
On the diplomatic front, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed Thursday that the United Nations should play a role in "legitimizing" a military presence in Kosovo and endorsed Russia's call for a peace deal.
Annan's comments came as Germany issued a new proposal calling for a pause in the bombing if Yugoslavia agreed to NATION conditions -- including an international peacekeeping force.
NATO called the German plan a "food-for-thought paper," but did not immediately endorse it.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, president of the European Union, said the EU ministers would push for a U.N. Security Council resolution incorporating the German proposal.
Annan called for all sides to work with Russia toward a solution. Russia strongly opposes the NATO airstrikes, which began March 24 when Yugoslavia refused to halt its crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
"If the international community is going to make progress on this issue, I think it's essential we all come together, and work with the Russians who are playing a very constructive role, and I'm in touch with them," Annan said.
NATO requirements for a cease-fire include withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo and the safe return of several hundred thousand refugees forced to flee the fighting.
Correspondents Richard Roth, Alessio Vinci, Brent Sadler, Jamie McIntyre and Catherine Bond contributed to this report.
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