NATO jets also struck 2nd convoy

Allies acknowledge inadvertent strikes on Kosovo civilians

Earlier reports conflicted

Amid new airstrikes, U.S. seeks to block oil

flow of refugees halts

War In Yugoslavia

April 20, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- NATO officials now believe that allied aircraft in Kosovo inadvertently attacked two convoys containing civilians -- not just one, as officials had asserted last week -- a U.S. Air Force general acknowledged yesterday.

Brig. Gen. Daniel Leaf, commander of the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy, told reporters in Brussels, Belgium, that NATO officials think civilian vehicles made up part of two convoys outside Djakovica on April 14. Precise details of the airstrikes in western Kosovo may never be known.

Last week, amid conflicting reports, NATO and Pentagon officials apologized and said an "error" had been made by a NATO aircraft attacking a single convoy. However, Yugoslav officials contended that there had been two attacks by NATO aircraft that killed 75 civilians, and Serbian television showed graphic pictures of mangled bodies.

Last night and early today, Serbian media reported more NATO strikes under way against industrial and communications facilities over central and southern Serbia in Yugoslavia, according to wire services.

The Yugoslav state news agency Tanjug reported the heaviest bombardments on Serbia's third largest city Nis, in the southeast, where it said one person had been killed and at least eight injured. There were reports that missiles heavily damaged the country's main cigarette factory as well as the Nis water system, and that power had failed in theNis district.

Tanjug also reported new strikes on the Kosovo capital, Pristina; on Kragujevac, home of the huge Zastava car plant destroyed in earlier attacks; and on communications and transportation links.

Elsewhere, Serbian media said the alliance struck a major international telecommunications relay facility at Prilike, 80 miles south of Belgrade, and undisclosed targets on Mount Zlatibor near the town of Uzice to the west.

Tanjug said the Prilike relay station was a major civilian telecommunications facility for international telephone and satellite television relay.

Oil interdiction

As NATO's bombing campaign entered its 27th day, the alliance also sought to find a way to halt oil deliveries to Yugoslav ports that are being used to fuel the war machine of President Slobodan Milosevic. Allied aircraft have destroyed most oil refineries and fuel depots in Yugoslavia.

The United States wants to block the deliveries by having NATO warships stop and search vessels in the Adriatic Sea. But France has opposed any blockade, saying it would amount to an act of war.

Rather than terming the proposed interdiction a blockade, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin spoke of it as "some kind of visit and search of ships."

Joe Lockhart, President Clinton's spokesman, said: "We think it's important that, working through the alliance, that we choke off any efforts of oil being brought in from the outside."

In another development, Yugoslavia closed its borders with neighboring Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro yesterday, turning what had been a daily flood of refugees over the weekend into a trickle, according to aid agencies.

There was no immediate explanation for the sudden change by Belgrade, which apparently has been using the flow of refugees as a weapon to keep NATO off guard and destabilize the region.

"It's very clear that there are large numbers of more people who would like to come," Paula Ghedini, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Macedonia.

A general explains

Leaf, the Air Force general, brushed aside suggestions that mistakes had been made by NATO aircraft. He said that both convoys that were attacked appeared to include military vehicles.

"I don't think my conclusions said that something clearly went wrong," Leaf said. "I said that there is a possibility that civilian-type vehicles were struck and that there may have been civilian personnel harmed.

"Given the Serb control of the scene, the video that they presented, we can't determine that clearly," he said. "We can only speculate on their association with our attacks."

Asked how a similar tragedy could be prevented, Leaf said he would not discuss details of NATO air missions, but added: "We review every tape, and we look for the best way to hit the right target at the right time in the right manner with minimal opportunity for unintended consequences."

Showing dramatic footage from the F-16 airstrikes, Leaf said the first attack against what appeared to be three military vehicles took place northwest of Djakovica, while a second, larger convoy of 100 vehicles was bombed to the southeast, on the road to Prizren. NATO jets dropped nine 500-pound, laser-guided bombs in the attacks.

"It is possible there were civilian casualties at both locations," the general said.

The strike on the second convoy was halted only after a lower-flying observation aircraft was called in to investigate further. Using binoculars, the pilot in the observation plane determined that civilian vehicles were part of the convoy, and the attack was stopped.

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