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Serb ministry of truth studies the artful lies of war

INDEPENDENT (London) 23 November 1999

By Robert Fisk in Belgrade

Nato called it "the Serb Lie Machine". So did Alastair Campbell, who likes to be called Tony Blair's "spokesman". But Belgrade's propaganda was non-existent in the early days of the Kosovo war and when the Yugoslav army first tried to "manage" the press in Serbia, it got it hopelessly wrong.

Officers were watching Western journalists and camera crews to discover if they were taking secret videotape for Nato, only to find that the journalists sneaking pictures of railway and road bridges were mostly Russian.

Up to 25 Russian journalists and photographers were quietly expelled from Belgrade in the early days of the war while Western camera crews were trucked around to film damage to military barracks and factories, attacks which - in the initial days of the war - rarely involved civilian casualties and, in the case of army compounds, could only be considered "legitimate targets".

Then, after a group of Yugoslav colonels studied Jamie Shea's daily Nato press briefings, playing back through the videotapes and taking notes of his words, they tried to stage a series of parallel military press conferences in Belgrade.

It was a disaster. Senior Yugoslav officers have admitted to The Independent that they spent hours transcribing details of Nato's own sorties and air strikes to re-present them as their own material in Belgrade, complete with a Serb general to balance the Nato generals appearing on CNN and BBC World. "We should never have tried," one of the Yugoslav officers said."We should have left Nato to its own games and been more original from the start. Shea became one of our allies, so what was the point of trying to imitate him?"

Inevitably, it was Nato's killing of civilians that provided the Yugoslav army's "media relations" department with the material it needed - even if it still overplayed its hand. Inviting journalists, after a night of Nato bombing on the Pancevo oil refinery, to watch archive Nazi movies on the 1941 invasion of Yugoslavia - the monochrome film badly scratched, the sound-track still in German - was unlikely to harm Nato. The tables turned, however, when Nato bombed a passenger train on the Gurdulice bridge and attacked a long Kosovo Albanian refugee convoy as it made its way across the province on 14 April.

"It took us time to decode Nato's real strategy," a senior military figure involved with the media during the war told The Independent last week. "In the beginning, they were absolutely denying causing any civilian casualties. They succeeded in doing this, at least at the start when they bombed the post office in Pristina. So we had to show who Nato was hitting. We proved it was killing civilians.

"Then, when Shea changed strategy and started calling this 'collateral damage', our task was to show such words were meaningless. Then Nato started bombing factories and television transmitters on the edge of housing estates and hit bridges in villages and called these 'legitimate military targets'. That term comprehended everything," he said.

What the Yugoslav authorities could never counter, of course, were the pictures of hundreds of thousands of persecuted Albanians being driven across the Kosovo border with their horrific tales of dispossession and execution. Even when the Serbs allowed journalists to visit Kosovo from Belgrade, they could not stop them seeing villagers, rounded up and awaiting expulsion or being driven along the roads in black-curtained buses.

Reporters taken to see the results of the first Nato attack on a refugee convoy witnessed hundreds of burning houses across southern Kosovo. It was a calculated gamble. The world already knew about the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo. The burning houses were real but proved nothing new. So why not show the world what it still refused to believe - that Nato was killing scores of civilians?

It was a cynical decision but propaganda, if that is really the word for such campaigns, produces cruel decisions. At about the same time, so it was revealed at the Edinburgh television festival this summer, Nato took a strategic decision to stop apologising when it killed civilians. However many men, women and children were killed by Nato's bombs - dropped from high altitude so that the pilots should never be killed - there would be no remorse.

As a result, the world still believes the civilians killed in a bus west of Pec just before the war ended were victims of a KLA-Serb battle. Local Albanians now confirm the bus was hit by cluster bombs when Nato attacked a checkpoint on the road.

But of course, once the mass graves began to be exhumed in Kosovo, the story of General Pavkovic's Third Army in Kosovo took on a different character. War crimes investigators in the Hague say they have no proof that the army - as opposed to the Serb police and paramilitaries - participated in atrocities. But the army was there, and it was inevitably contaminated by the killers' wicked deeds. It's a fact the Yugoslav military - prepared to face the facts of the war - now glumly acknowledges.

INDEPENDENT (London) 23 November 1999

Clinton visits Kosovo to plead for ethnic reconciliation, rebuilding

By Robertt Burns, AP Military Writer

Five months after NATO bombs broke Serbia's grip on Kosovo, U.S. President Clinton is pleading for an end to violent reprisals against Kosovo's minority Serbs and urging patience in rebuilding the war-torn province.

Clinton was flying to Kosovo Tuesday - his first visit there since the 7-day air war ended in June - to consult with United Nations officials and American military commanders. In an address to ethnic Albanians in the formerly Serb-dominated town of Urosevac, Clinton was expected to call for a halt to revenge killings and ethnic intolerance.

In remarks in Sofia on Monday previewing his trip to Kosovo, Clinton said he would make "a very strong statement about the importance of everybody getting over this ethnic hatred and going beyond it." Taking an optimistic view of Kosovo's prospects, Clinton cautioned against expecting a rapid improvement in the social climate there.

"A lot of good things have happened there since the end of the war," Clinton told reporters. "And it hasn't been very long, and there is a long, long history in Kosovo and throughout Serbia - throughout the Balkans - that we're trying to get beyond."

In Belgrade, however, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's ruling party said the visit was Clinton's "return to the scene of the crime" - referring to NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

With U.S. warplanes taking the lead, NATO launched an air war against Yugoslavia in March in response to a campaign by Milosevic to rid Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian population. Expulsions and killings of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces accelerated after the bombing began, and hundreds of thousands fled into neighboring Macedonia and Albania, only to return after Milosevic surrendered control of Kosovo.

Even though NATO peacekeeping troops have sought to protect both sides, attacks on Serbs are still almost a daily occurrence. Of an original Serb population in Kosovo of about 200,000, roughly half have fled out of fear for their lives. U.S. and other military authorities say they cannot effectively act as police, and the international civilian agencies need to move faster to arrange elections and bring in the money and other resources needed to rebuild.

In his comments in Sofia, Clinton said that after the enormous effort Western countries already have made in Kosovo, "it's very important that Kosovo in effect not become the mirror image of Serbia" with ethnic intolerance.

In a conversation Monday with college students in Sofia from the Balkans, including Serbia and Kosovo, Clinton expressed hope that Serb opposition groups could unite to defeat Milosevic in a fair election, and he argued against allowing Kosovo to become an independent nation. Kosovo is temporarily a United Nations protectorate.

Kosovo is the final stop on Clinton's 10-day European trip, which began in Turkey. A major theme of his trip has been finding a long-term solution to the political, economic and social instabilities in the Balkans. In Sofia on Monday, Clinton said he could see no way to "put this all back together again" unless Serbia got rid of Milosevic.

Clinton was the first American president to visit Bulgaria, which cast off communism in 1989 but got a slow start in the transition to democracy and open markets. Clinton raised the possibility of Bulgaria eventually gaining NATO membership.

In an evening address to tens of thousands of cheering Bulgarians in historic Nevski Square, Clinton cautioned against expecting a rapid transition to prosperity after a long period of totalitarianism and official corruption.

"The struggle for your constitutional democracy was waged not for paradise but for possibilities, not for a perfect world but for a chance to build a better world," he declared. Later he added, "I know that it may seem hard now," but today's younger generation of Bulgarians will feel the benefits of closer ties to the rest of Europe.

*** 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. ***

Return to the 'NATO Bombing - has it brought peace to the Balkans?' Alert.

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