Allies probe convoy attack

Dozens of refugees are killed

whether by NATO, Serbs unclear

Germany offers peace plan

Cease-fire proposal draws cool response from U.S., alliance

War In Yugoslavia

April 15, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon scrambled yesterday to investigate a NATO attack on a convoy of military vehicles in Kosovo, trying to prove that dozens of ethnic Albanian civilians who were killed nearby were the victims of a Serbian atrocity and not the NATO planes.

Describing the incident, U.S. and NATO officials said last night that their aircraft attacked Serbian military vehicles yesterday in a village between Dakovica and Prizren, but then abruptly halted the strikes after spotting civilian vehicles near the military ones.

But Serbian officials said 64 ethnic Albanian civilians died as a result of attacks by NATO warplanes.

In a separate incident, the Pentagon said last night that refugees told United Nations officials that a convoy of 600 ethnic Albanian women and children traveling between Prizren and Kukes, Albania, was attacked by Yugoslav combat planes.

Two tractors were hit, and an unknown number were killed, officials said.

Earlier in the day, the Defense Department had offered adifferent account of the incident involving the NATO airstrikes. The Pentagon said then that the NATO aircraft attacked Serbian military vehicles that were leading a convoy of ethnic Albanians. After the attack, defense officials said, Serbian army or police units retaliated by killing civilians in the convoy.

Several hours later, military officials revised their account, saying that there was no evidence of such retaliation but that Yugoslav aircraft had killed civilians in the second, separate convoy.

The Pentagon said U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's supreme commander, might have film that could help clear up the matter.

"I want to be very clear -- this is under review," said Kenneth H. Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman. "[Clark's] looking for film. I don't think he has a clear view of what happened at this stage."

Contradictory accounts of the attack compounded a day of mixed diplomatic signals after Germany proposed a peace plan that failed to win NATO or American endorsement. The German proposal calls for a 24-hour cease-fire once the Serbs start to withdraw their forces from Kosovo.

Exchanges of fire

NATO airstrikes continued throughout Yugoslavia yesterday, with reports of dozens of Serbian surface-to-air missiles and heavy anti-aircraft artillery. Belgrade residents said early today that the Yugoslav capital was hit by five or six blasts and that at least two were extremely strong.

There were no reports of damage or casualties, but the residents said they believed the explosions came from the south and east of the city. The Yugoslav military responded with heavy anti-aircraft fire.

In another development, the Pentagon said thousands of reservists, principally from the Air Force and Army, are expected to be called to active duty in coming days. And the U.S. cost of the Kosovo war could exceed the $4 billion figure the Pentagon cited Tuesday, Bacon said.

Administration officials told members of Congress in closed-door meetings that NATO was prepared to continue the air campaign into at least midsummer if Serbian forces continue their "ethnic cleansing" campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Serbian officials escorted reporters to the scene of a convoy in western Kosovo. Eighteen bodies, some of them missing limbs, were still there.

An investigative judge, Milenka Momcilovic, said 20 people had been killed and four injured.

The Serb-run Media Center, in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, said 44 people had been killed in a separate attack on another convoy of refugees on the road between Dakovica and Prizren to the south.

The report of civilian casualties come in the wake of two earlier NATO mistakes during the bombing that began March 24.

Monday, a U.S. F-15E that was targeting a bridge in southern Yugoslavia twice struck a train with missiles carrying 2,000-pound warheads. The country's Beta news agency said the death toll in that incident was 14 but could go as high as 50.

Last week, a U.S. plane dropped a bomb that fell short of its military target in Aleksinac, 100 miles south of Belgrade, and struck an apartment complex, killing seven civilians and injuring dozens.

NATO apologized for both incidents and said they were unavoidable.

Speaking of the alleged Serbian atrocities against ethnic Albanians in the convoy, Bacon said there had been earlier reports of Yugoslav aircraft targeting units of the Kosovo Liberation Army, but this is the first report of refugees being attacked by air.

So far, NATO has been unable to strike at the low-flying Yugoslav aircraft, Bacon said.

"As we move more forces into the area and bring more forces to the fight and do more to suppress air defenses, we would be able to get at these forces that we haven't already eliminated," Bacon said.

NATO officials have noted that during the three-week bombing campaign, Yugoslav forces have blamed allied airstrikes for any civilian casualties and destruction.

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