WASHINGTON -- Faulty planning, not pilot error or malfunctioning bombs, appears to have led NATO aircraft to mistakenly strike the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade with precision munitions, alliance and Pentagon officials said yesterday.
NATO and U.S. officials apologized profoundly to China for the attack in which four people died and 21 were wounded.
Although they are still trying to figure out what happened, officials indicated that inaccurate intelligence led the bombers to strike the embassy with the distinctive pagoda-style roof rather than its intended target: a Yugoslav procurement and supply building.
"That pilot did what he was told to do," said one Pentagon official. Before a pilot attacks a specified target, the official said, "that thing has gone through many, many, many hands."
NATO "wishes to express its deep regret for the tragic mistake of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade," a visibly upset Secretary-General Javier Solana said at a morning news briefing at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
"The sincere sympathy and the condolences of all the countries, of all the members of the alliance, go to the victims, to their families and the Chinese government," he said.
The State Department said the U.S. government had delivered a formal apology to Beijing through the U.S. ambassador to China, James R. Sasser. Administration officials also said NATO would guarantee safe passage for a Chinese plane being sent to Belgrade to evacuate embassy staff members who survived the bombing.
At the United Nations in New York, an emergency meeting of the Security Council called by Beijing ended just before dawn yesterday. China called the attack a "crime of war," and Russian Ambassador Sergei V. Lavrov denounced the bombing as "unconscionable."
China failed to persuade a majority of the 15-member council to condemn the bombing of its embassy, but the council issued a statement expressing "shock and concern" and extended condolences to China.
NATO aircraft firing more than one precision-guided munition struck the embassy, officials said, while Chinese officials said three missiles struck the building. NATO officials would not say whether U.S. planes were involved in the attack or what types of bombs were used.
Maj. Gen. Walter Jertz, an alliance spokesman, said NATO aircraft attacked what was thought to be the Yugoslav federal directorate for supply and procurement in downtown Belgrade.
"The information we had was that in this building was the headquarters of the directorate," Jertz told reporters in Brussels. "And we have no evidence we were misled."
But NATO and Pentagon officials offered no details on where the directorate actually is located or whether it is close to the Chinese Embassy.
President Clinton called the embassy bombing a "tragic mistake," adding, "I want to offer my sincere regret and my condolences to both the leaders and the people of China."
Still, Clinton added later, "I think it is important that NATO stay the course."
NATO did just that last night, striking bridges, fuel depots and other targets throughout the country.
Serbian media said NATO airstrikes sent huge clouds of smoke billowing over Kragujevac, a central Serbian city about 75 miles southeast of Belgrade, on the 46th day of the alliance's air campaign against Yugoslavia.
The official Yugoslav news agency Tanjug said 13 people were wounded in the attack on Kragujevac. The independent news agency Beta said a downtown military barracks and a television transmitter on nearby Mount Crni Vrh were hit.
Meanwhile, Russia's special envoy on the Balkans, Victor S. Chernomyrdin, said the accidental bombing must not interfere with the efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution to the 6 1/2-week-old conflict.
"This problem must be solved in a political way as quickly as possible," Chernomyrdin said after meeting in Germany with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the U.N. secretary-general's newly appointed representative, Carl Bildt, in a bid to keep the peace plan moving forward.
Solana, the NATO secretary-general, said the accident is under review and new information would be released as soon as possible.
Solana and Pentagon officials said the bombing would not only continue but increase in the days ahead. When the embassy was struck before dawn yesterday, it was during the most intensive airstrikes so far against Yugoslavian targets.
"NATO will continue to pursue its goal, and its goal is none other than to stop `ethnic cleansing' and to ensure that Kosovars can return to their home in peace and security," Solana said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said, "NATO is determined to continue this campaign and to intensify the campaign."
Bacon also said the mistaken attack would not cause NATO to warn those who might be near targets.
"We have issued a general warning to the press and others, of course, that Belgrade is a dangerous area and that we cannot guarantee the safety of anybody," he said.