By Ben Rooney
NATO went into briefing frenzy yesterday, producing a flood of information to explain the most tragic error of the four-week air campaign.
Having spent the previous five days denying it was involved in the attack on a civilian convoy south of the Kosovan town of Djakovica last Wednesday, it admitted that it had attacked it, eight times.
Stung by criticism that the alliance was dragging its feet to explain its position, US Air Force Brig Gen Dan Leaf, who commands the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing at Aviano air base in Italy, said he had devoted the past five days to trying to establish the facts as best he could.
In a highly detailed press conference he explained how the events of that tragic day unfolded, but would not admit that his pilots had hit anything other than a military target. He did admit that from the comfort of the briefing room, the video of the attacks appeared to show alliance aircraft attacking what seemed to be tractors. But he stressed that pilots of F16s had only a pair of monochrome 4.5in screens by their knees to study.
He emphasised that the lead vehicles of the convoy of more than 100 had "several characteristics of military movement - uniform size, shape and colour as seen from the air, as well as consistent spacing between vehicles and a relatively high speed".
He also hinted at, but would not elaborate on, other sources of information that led the pilots to believe they were attacking Serb army forces involved in ethnic cleansing. He explained how aircraft made multiple passes over the convoy, releasing 500lb bombs.
It was not until someone in the air force HQ in Italy suggested almost an hour later that the Serb army does not travel in large convoys [silly!] that someone re-checked the target. It was only then they realised it contained civilian vehicles. "It is possible there were civilian casualties at both locations," he said.
This, according to Nato, is how the drama unfolded:
10:30 Bear 21, a pair of F16 Flying Falcons flying a Forward Air Control mission over west Kosovo are trying to find targets. One of these pilots was identified as being the pilot on the tape Nato played last week.
Bear 21 sees houses being burned and a "military-type vehicle moving from house to house". As it leaves each house, it goes up in flames. He concludes that it is a legitimate target.
11:10 Having built up a clear picture of what is unfolding below him when other vehicles join in, Bear 21 targets a single vehicle with a 500lb laser-guided GBU 12 bomb. Running low on fuel, the pair relay the target information to another pair of F16s, callsign Bear 41, and leave the area.
In the interim, an unmanned reconnaissance vehicle (UAV) passes over the area and sees vehicles in a distinctive "C-shaped building". Itis this building that is later seen on Serb TV.
Bear 41 assesses the target area for over 10 minutes, deciding that the vehicles he is seeing are military and the same ones as previously reported. He passes the attack information to another pair of F16s, Bear 42, who attack the vehicles in the compound with a single GBU 12.
11:48 The attack on vehicles north of Djakovica is completed. As these attacks are ending, another forward air controller, Bear 31, discovers a major convoy of more than 100 vehicles moving east south-east down the road from Djakovica to Prizren. With more than 20 vehicles at the front of the convoy that from 15,000ft appear to be the same shape and colour, and moving with regular spacing, he thinks he has identified a major military convoy.
He relays the information to an airborne command post, called an ABCCC. They discuss identification of the target. At about the same time, the pilot sees a UAV in the vicinity of the convoy.
12:16 The command plane tells Bear 31: "We have just received word that this is a VJ (Serb army) convoy, how copy?"
"Great, give me all your players now. Saab [a French Jaguar] are you still airborne? ABCCC, I want as many fighters as I can get now."
One of the pilots peels off, finds the lead vehicle in the convoy, fixes the laser on him and releases another GBU 12 laser-guided bomb. He misses. Bear 32, another F16 flight, makes its bombing run, attacking another vehicle. The bomb hits home, obliterating the target. By this time the French Jaguars, call signs Saab 51 and 52, are on the scene and have a go at the targets, but miss.
12:38 Bear 41, the same pair of F16s involved in the attacks to the north, arrive. They make a bomb run.
12:46 Bear 41 and 42 make another pass, with one hit, one miss. Another flight, Chisel 31, another pair of F16s also attacks the convoy. As they make their attack, the ABCCC asks Bear 41 to make sure they are hitting a military target. Someone back in headquarters has suggested that the Serb army does not move in large convoys.
Bear 41 then calls in a specialist observer plane, an OA-10, a variant of the slow-moving A10 Warthog ground attack plane. With powerful binoculars the pilot of the flight realises that "multicoloured, possibly civilian, vehicles are also present".
13:00 Bear 31 suspends the attacks and orders all fighters "high and dry".
13:20 Attacks on the convoy are terminated..
Of course, they knew immediately what they have hit.
Djakovica (AP) - A boy cries sitting atop a horse-drawn cart stacked with clothes and blankets at the site where according to Yugoslav authorities, a convoy of refugees were struck near the town of Djakovica in southern Kosovo Wednesday April, 14, 1999. Yugoslavia said a NATO airstrike hit a convoy of ethnic Albanian refugees, killing at least 64 and wounding 20. NATO said it was investigating.
NATO purposely bombed this Albanian column of refugees. These Albanians dared not obey orders of KLA/NATO and tried to get BACK to their homes.
This way NATO sent a clear message to Albanians:
Don't you dare come home. We need you as refugees - as propaganda point against the Serbs.
[British] The Independent, 16 April 1999
Nato apologises for convoy deaths
By Marcus Tanner
Nato apologised yesterday for attacking a column of Albanian refugees in Kosovo on Wednesday, killing at least 60 people, in what may prove the first big test of Western public support for the Balkan air campaign...
In Washington and London, leaders said they would not be derailed by the "one tragic accident" from prosecuting an intensified air campaign against the forces of the Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic.
The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said: "We regret these things deeply when they happen butthat should not make us flinch from placing responsibility for this conflict squarely on the shoulders of Milosevic, who has begun this conflict." Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, added: "How dare they [the Serbs] produce crocodile tears for people killed in the conflict for which they themselves are responsible."
The White House said Nato would continue the air campaign into midsummer if necessary if the Serbs continued to drive the Albanians from Kosovo. The US Defense Secretary William Cohen said the campaign could go on for months...
(Our note: Kosovo Albanians that were butchered by NATO attack were trying to return home.)