Amnesty International accuses NATO of illegal bombing raids

Attacks in Yugoslavia violated laws protecting civilians, group says


PRAGUE, Czech Republic - In an extensive report that has infuriated NATO leaders, Amnesty International said yesterday that NATO violated international law in its bombing war over Yugoslavia by hitting targets where civilians were sure to be killed.

The report was released less than a week after Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, told the U.N. Security Council that her investigation found no basis for charging NATO or its leaders with war crimes.

Del Ponte said that although "some mistakes were made by NATO," she was "very satisfied that there was no deliberate targeting of civilians or unlawful military targets."

Some tribunal officials said privately that they hoped their report would cause NATO countries to review their rules of engagement in order to reduce the chances of civilian casualties.

In particular, Amnesty said that NATO's bombing of the Belgrade headquarters of Radio Television Serbia, on April 23, 1999, "was a deliberate attack on a civilian object and as such constitutes a war crime."

Sixteen people died in the attack, nearly all of them technicians, security staff and make-up artists. NATO defended the bombing as an attack on the "propaganda machine" of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

International law forbids direct attacks on civilians and civilian targets and requires all feasible precautions to prevent civilian deaths. In some cases, Amnesty said, NATO failed to take sufficient precautions.

The number of civilian deaths from NATO air strikes "could have been significantly reduced if NATO forces had fully adhered to the laws of war during Operation Allied Force," the report said.

Amnesty also condemned a NATO attack on a bridge at Varvarin on May 30, 1999, in which at least 11 civilians died.

"NATO forces failed to suspend their attack after it was evident that they had struck civilians," the report said, and it criticized NATO for ordering its pilots to fly so high that they could not take proper precautions to avoid civilians.

In particular, the report criticized the bombing of civilian convoys of Albanian refugees near Djakovica on April 14 and Korisa on May 13.

NATO officials quickly rejected the Amnesty findings. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson called the allegations "baseless and ill-founded."

"NATO scrupulously adhered to international law, including the law of war, throughout the conflict and made every effort to minimize civilian casualties," he said.

NATO's mistakes, he said, were few and should be weighed "against the atrocities that NATO's action stopped."

The Amnesty report is similar in its findings to an more detailed report issued in February by Human Rights Watch.

Of the approximately 500 Yugoslav civilians killed in Serbia and Kosovo by NATO bombs, half died unnecessarily because of NATO violations of humanitarian law and practice, said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in a telephone interview.

Roth criticized NATO in four areas: the use of cluster bombs, "inherently indiscriminate weapons," near civilian areas; the deliberate bombing of targets with little or no military significance, including the television station, Belgrade's heating plant, bridges, some factories and other infrastructure; the bombing of targets, like the Varvarin bridge, in the daytime, when civilians would be nearby at a market; and the failure to take sufficient precautions to identify mobile targets before bombing.

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