U.S. admits bombing mistake

Allies say pilot thought refugees to be Serbian army convoy

Civilian vehicle destroyed

Yugoslav officials claim NATO attack killed 75 people

War In Yugoslavia

April 16, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Pentagon and NATO officials acknowledged yesterday that a U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot mistakenly struck a civilian vehicle in southwestern Kosovo on Wednesday, thinking he was targeting a Serbian military convoy.

The officials apologized for the attack, which killed an uncertain number of civilians, presumably ethnic Albanians.

But they vowed to press on with even more intensified airstrikes and said the Yugoslav government was ultimately to blame for any civilian casualties caused by NATO airstrikes.

Despite calls in Congress for NATO to consider the use of ground troops, Pentagon officials said there were still no plans to send any allied ground forces into a hostile environment.

Jamie P. Shea, a NATO spokesman, said the U.S. pilot who inadvertently attacked the civilians "was convinced he had the right target" and struck the first vehicle in the convoy.

"The NATO bomb destroyed the lead vehicle, which we now believe to have been a civilian vehicle," Shea said.

Yugoslav officials said 75 people died and more than two dozen were hurt in NATO attacks. Allied officials said they could not confirm those figures.

The incident occurred as the pilot fired on what he thought was a three-truck military convoy outside Dakovica. Pentagon and NATO officials initially asserted that Serbian forces had attacked the ethnic Albanian refugees, either from the ground or the air.

Ethnic Albanian refugees streaming into Albania have told United Nations officials that they have been targeted by Yugoslav planes.

"It has been confirmed by NATO that an error did in fact occur, but it was under extraordinary circumstances with the kind of stress placed upon pilots," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Any time there's a loss of innocent life, of civilians being killed during the course of combat, it is regrettable."

President Clinton blamed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for the civilian casualties, saying such a mistake was "inevitable" after refugees were removed from their homes and perhaps used as human shields.

"You cannot have this kind of conflict without some errors like this occurring," Clinton told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in San Francisco. "This is not a business of perfection."

Samuel R. Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, told reporters they should keep in mind that after all the sorties flown so far -- a total of 6,000, U.S. officials said yesterday -- allied pilots have suffered just one shootdown and have caused "a striking lack of civilian casualties."

Cohen and U.S. Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the bombing would accelerate.

NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, has asked the Pentagon for 300 more American combat and supply planes, which would bring the number of U.S. and allied aircraft to more than 1,000.

Today, the Pentagon is expected to announce the call-up of reservists from all services, primarily the Air Force. Up to 30,000 reservists will be called to active duty, Legi-slate News Service reported, an estimate the Pentagon later confirmed.

The defense secretary noted that he should have changed his written testimony yesterday to say there was a "probability" of NATO casualties rather than merely a "possibility."

Cohen also said it was "grotesque" for Milosevic to use Serbian television to characterize the accident involving the F-16 as a NATO atrocity.

"If we allow Milosevic to saturate the airwaves with these kinds of lies and vicious propaganda, then I fear that it's back to the future," Cohen said. "It's back to Orwell's `1984.' "

Asked why the Serbs still have the ability to broadcast television, Cohen said such communications facilities "are slowly being taken down." One NATO military officer said: "We're going to black them out. It's coming."

Also yesterday, Russia embraced a German proposal for a 24-hour halt in NATO airstrikes if Yugoslav forces withdraw from Kosovo, saying that ending the bombing was the key to a peaceful solution. The United States has flatly rejected the proposal.

Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, the former prime minister who was chosen Wednesday to head Russia's efforts to find a political solution to the Kosovo dispute, said he plans talks with Milosevic.

Cohen said the mistaken attack on the civilian vehicle occurred during an air mission that targeted a variety of sites. NATO pilots were coming under heavy attack by anti-aircraft artillery and shoulder-fired missiles, he said.

Serbian television showed two areas of destruction, one on a dirt road and another on a highway. Tractors were included in some of the pictures.

NATO officials, however, questioned the veracity of some of the Serbian reports because the area of attack by the U.S. pilot was along a dirt road and no tractors were seen. There was no NATO comment on any highway attack.

Cohen said information was still being collected.

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