NATO jets also struck 2nd convoy

Allies acknowledge inadvertent strikes on Kosovo civilians

Earlier reports conflicted

U.S. seeks to bar oil from Yugoslav ports

flow of refugees halts

War In Yugoslavia

April 20, 1999|By Tom Bowman

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 civilians.

NATO, meanwhile, is trying to find a way to halt oil tanker 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.

Part of the confusion appeared to stem from the altitude from which the aircraft attacked their targets. Earlier, NATO officials said the planes had been flying at about 15,000 feet. Leaf declined yesterday to discuss that, other than to say that none of the planes descended to low altitudes during the attacks.

NATO aircraft are trying to fly high enough to avoid anti-aircraft artillery fire, which has a "burst height" of about 13,000 feet, the general said.

"From the attack altitude, to the naked eye, they appeared to be military vehicles," Leaf said, adding that intelligence from an accompanying EC-130 aircraft aided in the target selection.

As the fighters completed their attacks on the second convoy, officers aboard the EC-130 received information from a NATO operations center in Vicenza, Italy. Intelligence specialists in the operations center, Leaf said, told the EC-130 that Serbian military forces do not travel in convoys that large.

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