HeadLine: NATO’S DARKEST HOUR
Daily Record, 15/04/1999, p1, 2 & 3
by Shaun Milne
NATO warplanes were yesterday blamed for causing carnage among a refugee convoy in a disastrous air raid on Kosovo.
Serbia said at least 64 ethnic Albanians died in the air strike on a column of cars, trucks and tractors packed with refugees.
If the reports are true, the botched raid is a massive blow to NATO. Graphic images of the bloodied bodies of elderly refugees will be the Alliance’s biggest test in its darkest hour.
But Prime Minister Tony Blair warned: “We cannot take at face value any claim made by the Serb authorities. Anything they do, they use for propaganda purposes.”
And in America, the Pentagon claimed the convoy could have been attacked by Serb forces.
Hours before the strike, Germany was making overtures for a ceasefire but they were slapped down by Blair.
However, yesterday’s horrific events at a village near the Albanian border threaten to undermine the will among NATO members to continue the bombing campaign.
Bodies were scattered amid the rubble of houses and the wreckage of tractors, cars and trucks.
Refugees arriving in Albania told how three unidentified aircraft dropped three bombs on the convoy at around noon British time.
One middle-aged man said: “We saw the destroyed tractors. There were at least 10 bodies. Some did not have heads or arms or legs.
“There were three planes in the attack but we did not see them well enough to know what sort they were.”
As he spoke, another 30 or so refugees crammed in his trailer nodded at his story. All were shocked, some were weeping.
Ten minutes later, an elderly woman arriving at the border said bodies had been scattered across the roadside in the attack, just five miles from the Albanian border.
NATO admitted they had bombed vehicles in the area but said they had targeted armoured vehicles in what they said was a military convoy. And they said they knew nothing about any civilian casualties.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said later: “All I have been told by the operational commanders is that military vehicles were a target on that road this afternoon.
“We are processing the battle damage assessment in order to know more. As soon as we have more information, I will provide it to you.”
Last night, NATO were trying to discover how the attack at Meja, near the Serb garrison town of Djakovica, seemed to have gone so horribly wrong.
Privately, military sources said there were concerns that the refugees might have been used as human shields.
The raid on the convoy was the second disastrous attack by NATO planes in as many days. On Monday, 10 civilians died when a train crossed a bridge at the
moment that it was being bombed by a NATO warplane.
Yesterday, the Serbs claimed that two convoys, carrying mainly women, children and elderly Kosovars, were hit as they were being escorted in the border area by Serb police.
A Serbian foreign office spokesman said three policemen were injured, but despite suggestions that refugees may have been human shields, few military vehicles appeared to have been caught in the blasts.
A Ministry of Defence insider said RAF planes were not involved in the attack.
He said: “We were not involved. RAF planes were not there. They were all involved in operations elsewhere.”
Tony Blair later insisted Serb president Slobodan Milosevic had to take responsibility for any casualties in Kosovo.
The PM said: “He is the person who has brought this NATO action upon himself.
“He is the person responsible for causing this conflict by the appalling and evil policy of ethnic cleansing.
“There is not going to be a halt to the NATO action until the demands that we have set out – entirely reasonable, humane, civilised demands – are met in full.”
Blair added: “We take every single measure we can to try to avoid civilian casualties.
“Unfortunately, in situations like this, it sometimes happens.”
However, a Serb foreign ministry spokesman said yesterday’s alleged air strike was a “crime against humanity” and added: “The bodies are literally littered on the highway.”
In the Kosovo capital, Pristina, a Serb government spokesman said 64 people had died in the attack and 20 had been injured.
He said: “NATO airplanes launched rockets at two columns consisting mainly of children, women and old people, who, escorted by the police, were returning home.
“Three police officers, securing the return of civilians to their homes, were also wounded in the attacks.”
Last night, Serb president Slobodan Milosevic pledged Serbs would fight to the last man and take the war to neighbouring countries if NATO invaded.
He said: “If NATO, under pressure from the United States, decides to carry out a land operation in Kosovo, this will signal a spreading of the fire of war across the Balkans.
“Those countries from whose territory the ground troops invade will automatically be declared in a state of war with Yugoslavia.
“Tens, hundreds of thousands of volunteers from 16 to 60 years old will rush to the defence of our borders.
“The very ground will burn under the feet of the occupiers.”
NATO have said repeatedly that they hold Milosevic responsible for the safety of ethnic Albanians driven from their homes but trapped in Kosovo.
It is estimated hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians are now in no-man’s land, hiding in mountains and remote woods.
Yesterday, shortly before the convoy bombing, Tony Blair rejected a German proposal to suspend the air campaign.
Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder had called for attacks to be lifted for 24 hours once Serb troops started to pull out of Kosovo with a possible full suspension if the withdrawal continued.
But Blair, speaking as he arrived at a meeting of European leaders in Brussels, said: “There will be no compromise, there will be no half measures.”
He said the only way Milosevic could stop the bombing of his forces was by pulling out of Kosovo and allowing refugees to return under the protection of peace-keepers.
He said: “The conditions we have laid down are the minimum conditions consistent with upholding the values of civilisation.”
Blair doubted the German proposal would be honoured by Milosevic and added: “He is not exactly renowned for keeping agreements. He has a history of ceasefires, a history of saying things and then not doing them.”
The Prime Minister’s tough stance was shared by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.
He said NATO were considering sending soldiers into Kosovo even if Serb troops had not withdrawn.
Cook said: “There may be circumstances in which one could envisage an international protection force going in without a formal treaty arrangement but with no resistance on the ground.
“There has to be evidence that the Serb forces are at least in the process of withdrawing and there has to be a credible intention for them all to withdraw.”
Yesterday’s raids were not the first near Djakovica, an important border town inside Kosovo.
During the three weeks of allied air raids, several military targets have been hit in the town, but so, too, was part of Djakovica’s old town, in what appeared to be stray strikes.
Half a million Kosovar Albanians have fled or been driven out of the province in the past three weeks, the greatest mass displacement in Europe since World War II.
And thousands were still crossing into Macedonia and Albania yesterday.