Allied bombs go awry, killing 15 near market

Attack was at midday, during shopping rush

War In Yugoslavia

May 08, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NIS, Yugoslavia -- Three bodies and a stream of blood lay in front of Smilja Duric's home yesterday.

The 73-year-old woman with silver hair and a lined face fought back tears as she looked at the carnage by her front gate along Anete Andrejevic street.

Dead on the sidewalk was a dark-haired man, in his 30s, an egg carton over his head and an intravenous line snaking past his blood-stained leg.

An old man with a bundle of leeks, and an old woman with a bag of carrots, were in the gutters. Somebody had been carrying eggs.

"I would rather have died myself than to see all of this," Duric said.

Once again in this six-week air war against Yugoslavia, a NATO attack went awry and civilians were killed and injured: 15 dead, more than two dozen seriously injured, according to Yugoslav authorities.

Fire, death and destruction hit Nis, a city of about 250,000 people 125 miles southeast of Belgrade, as cluster bombs designed to penetrate tanks and armor rained down on two neighborhoods at about 11: 15 a.m.

The street leading to a market teeming with shoppers was hit. So was an area around a hospital, as windows were blown out and more than a dozen cars were destroyed, many going up in flames.

Lying amid the pockmarked streets and battered houses were four yellow canisters, about the size of beer cans, tell-tale signs that cluster bombs were used. "Bomb Frag" read the marking on one canister resting in someone's back yard.

U.S. Air Force officials and weapons experts said the markings indicated remnants of a CBU-87/B, a cluster bomb that carries 202 "bomblets," which drop by parachutes to reduce velocity and ensure that the small munitions hit their targets.

The bomblets have a shaped charge that can penetrate armor, a fragmented body that can hit people or damage vehicles and a zirconium incendiary ring that can start fires. When they detonate, the bomblets' steel body disintegrates and produces scores of 1-ounce fragments.

"An explosion of a cluster bomb is like fire from a machine gun," said Dr. Cedo Kutlesic, general manager of the regional hospital here.

With its airport, factories, gasworks, rail station and headquarters of the Yugoslav 3rd Army, Nis has been a prime NATO target throughout the bombing campaign that began March 24.

A statement from NATO in Brussels, Belgium, said the target of the attack had been Nis' military airfield. "Unfortunately, it is highly probable that a weapon went astray and hit civilian buildings," it said.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said allied officials are investigating the incident.

Pressed about reports that journalists found pieces of cluster bombs, Bacon said he would wait until detailed information is gathered.

"I'm not going to get into salami-slicing this information as it comes out," he said, before repeating what U.S. and NATO spokesmen have been saying after each attack that kills civilians:

"Our policy is to avoid civilian casualties. We know that we make mistakes from time to time."

No other targets known

Maj. Gen. Charles F. Wald, a strategic planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "I understand the airfield at Nis was attacked. I don't know of any other targets around that area whatsoever."

Several NATO aircraft took part in the attacks, including B-52s, Wald said.

In the past, civilians had taken the air raids in stride, quickly seeking shelter while staying away from the obvious targets in this city nestled amid bucolic countryside and rolling mountains.

But yesterday, there seemed to be few places to hide as the city and its environs were hit twice before dawn and then smacked with a fatal wave just before the noontime shopping rush.

Within four hours of the deadly attack, Yugoslav army authorities led journalists through the deathly quiet streets of the city in a journey that was macabre and surreal.

It looked something like a movie set -- except that the blood, bodies and tears were real.

The first stop was Anete Andrejevic, a small, tree-lined avenue leading to the marketplace.

Power lines were down. So were tree branches.

And death came calling in front of Duric's home.

Ten minutes before the bomb hit, Duric said, she sent her teen-age grandson back to his home, and then she waited.

"I heard an explosion," she said. "I froze. I lost myself."

Up the road, the market was empty, with stalls shuttered. A few police officers loitered in the area. Around the corner, a woman lay dead, covered by a blanket.

The next stop was the Medosevic neighborhood, less than a half-mile from the airport. An 8-foot-deep crater marked the middle of the neighborhood. Five houses were leveled. Clay tiles and smashed lumber lay in the mud.

Nobody was killed here during a raid at about 4: 40 a.m.

Zoran Obramovic, a stocky 56-year-old, dug himself, his wife and mother out of the basement of their destroyed home.

"This is not war," he said. "It's a crime. War is when you fight face to face."

Other lives were ruined.

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