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The bloody truth of how Nato changed the rules to win a 'moral war' in Yugoslavia

INDEPENDENT (London) - 7 February 2000

By Robert Fisk

For me, the proof came near the end of the Yugoslav war, when Nato bombed a hospital at Surdulice on 31 May last year. Serb soldiers were hiding in the basement, civilian refugees sleeping above them. The soldiers survived, the civilians were slaughtered in the raid and James Shea, Nato's king of excuses, announced that it was "a military target".

Did he know did Nato know that this building was a hospital, that there were civilians as well as Yugoslav military hiding there? Sure, the Yugoslav army were using their own Serb people as human shields. And shame upon them. But if Nato knew this, then it broke international law. Article 50, paragraph 3, of the 1949 Geneva Conventions' Protocol 1 specifically demands the safeguarding of civilian lives even in the presence of "individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians".

The bodies of the dead refugees were laid out in the afternoon sun on the day of their death. One teenage girl lay on the grass a few metres from a book of love poems; her tragic love and death was researched and reported in The Independent in November. She was killed by Nato. So was a young and brilliant Serb mathematics student, cut down as she tried to rescue the wounded at Varvarin bridge. An American jet had bombed the narrow old river bridge, killing the civilians walking across it. It was a saint's day in Varvarin and a market day the attack happened at about 1pm and the bridge was too narrow to take a tank.

Just because there wasn't a tank on the bridge at the time, Mr Shea told us, didn't mean a tank didn't cross it. But the bridge was too narrow for any Yugoslav tank. And about 20 minutes after the first bloody assault, another American jet attacked, just in time to kill the rescuers. The girl, who had just been awarded top prize at her Belgrade college, was killed by this US pilot as she tried to pull a wounded man from the road. The same bomb beheaded the local priest as he emerged from his church.

In the countryside around lay what appeared to be parts of Nato's favourite weapon, cluster-bombs. They were dropped across all of Yugoslavia, and most of their civilian victims were in the south of Serbia. Cluster-bombs tore many of the Albanian refugees to pieces on the mistargeted convoys of refugees in the early part of the war. And cluster-bombs possibly dropped by British aircraft killed civilians in the Serbian city of Nis when a plane mistargeted a local military barracks. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, was so outraged at the Nis attack that she pleaded with alliance officials to take greater care in their bombardment, as well as condemning Serbia's "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo.

At some point in the second half of the Yugoslav war, Nato decided to stop apologising for civilian deaths.

And you can see why. From its initial attacks on real military barracks and facilities almost all of them empty Nato's air bombardment moved to dual-use factories and then "targets of opportunity" (which doomed many a Kosovo refugee travelling in convoys in which police vehicles were present) and then slid promiscuously to transportation routes and hospitals which hid soldiers and the Serb television station.

Today's Human Rights Watch report is the nearest we have seen so far to the unvarnished, bloody truth about Nato's campaign in Yugoslavia. If it depends too heavily on Yugoslav references, including the carefully produced and detailed though sometimes selective Belgrade government's "White Book" on Nato "crimes", its analysis of alliance tactics, claims and barefaced lies (a word not used by Human Rights Watch, of course) provides a new balance to the history of last year's "moral" war.

It condemns Nato for the attack on Serb television headquarters as opposed to transmitters on the basis that it could not be regarded as a military target, only a propaganda target. And that's exactly how the cabinet minister Clare Short justified the killing of 16 studio technicians and a young make-up artist. Needless to say, Nato never bombed Croatian television headquarters when it was pumping out propaganda of a similar kind in 1992.

After walking through the rubble of the Serb studios at the time, I reflected that when you kill people for what they say however much you hate their words then you have changed the rules of war. And that is what Nato did from April through to June of 1999. They changed the rules of war. A military barracks was a legitimate target. Then a tobacco factory, a road bridge, the railway line at Gurdulice just when a train was crossing the bridge.

Interestingly enough, Human Rights Watch quotes General Wesley Clark, Nato's commander, saying of the pilot's video footage of the passenger train racing over the Gurdulice bridge that "you can see if you were focusing right on your job as a pilot, how suddenly that train appeared it was really unfortunate". But the human rights organisation appears ignorant of recent revelations that Nato deliberately speeded up the video film for its press audience to three times the train's actual speed.

The train did not appear "suddenly" as General Clark mendaciously claimed. It was travelling much more slowly. And despite Human Rights Watch's claims to have interviewed so many Yugoslav survivors of air attacks their work is indeed impressive the group seems unaware that several survivors of the train attack say they saw the aircraft return for a second strike. Indeed, the evidence at the scene showed how the first bomb smashed a road bridge above the track, cutting the electrical wires and stopping the train. A second missile then hit the carriages.

It was not a war crime, Human Rights Watch says. In fact, Nato committed no war crimes, according to Kenneth Roth and his investigators. But it committed "violations of international humanitarian law" which amounts to about the same thing. And still we don't know who bombed what. Survivors believe the train was attacked by a British Harrier. The report says it was an American jet. The Yugoslavs say the plane that bombed the centre of Aleksinac in April was British based on intercepted pilot radio messages yet still we don't know.

In the New Year Honours List, Britain's Kosovo pilots got their gongs. All their names were printed in The Independent although we have no idea who was rewarded for their role in Nato's sloppy bombing campaign Nato failed to hit more than a handful of Serb tanks throughout the war and the Yugoslav Third Army retired unscratched from Kosovo or who was bemedalled for watching the radar tracks.

Last September, an unnoticed article in The Officer, a magazine widely read by Ministry of Defence officials and senior army NCOs, quoted a British Harrier pilot who had been bombing Serbia the previous April.

"After a while you've got to ignore the collateral damage [civilian casualties] and start smashing those targets," he said at the time. "But the politicians aren't ready for that yet."

They soon were.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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