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Report Says NATO Bombing Killed 500 Civilians in Yugoslavia

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2000; Page A02

NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia last spring killed about 500 civilians in 90 separate incidents, many more airstrikes with civilian casualties than acknowledged by the United States and its allies, but a lower death toll than claimed by the Yugoslav government, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch.

Yugoslav authorities have alleged that NATO bombs and missiles caused at least 1,200 and possibly as many as 5,000 civilian deaths.

U.S. and allied governments have acknowledged civilian deaths in 20 to 30 incidents, mostly involving attacks that went awry. NATO has made no attempt, however, to determine the total number of attacks in which civilians died or the total number of civilians killed by the 26,000 bombs and missiles used by the alliance.

Throughout the 78-day air campaign that drove Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, NATO officials said they were taking exceptional precautions to minimize harm to noncombatants, including the use of precision-guided munitions in place of cheaper but less accurate conventional bombs.

In a 77-page report due for release today, however, Human Rights Watch faults NATO governments for not doing more to curb casualties. The report says U.S. and European forces should have taken greater care in identifying civilians in convoys, ordered fewer daylight attacks on bridges and other facilities used by civilians, and acted sooner to stop the use of cluster bombs in populated areas.

The report also is critical of Pentagon and NATO officials for not attempting a full accounting of civilian deaths. The lack of attention to the issue, the report says, suggests "a resistance to acknowledging the actual civilian effects and an indifference to evaluating their causes."

Responding to the report, several senior defense officials insisted NATO commanders did all they could to avoid civilian casualties. One high-ranking Pentagon officer said the figure of 500 deaths "speaks very well of the effort that NATO went to," noting the toll easily could have gone much higher.

"If you weren't very careful, you could do that in one evening in downtown Belgrade," he said.

Most of the civilian casualties occurred in attacks on legitimate military targets, the report says. Some of the deaths, the report adds, may be attributed to the Yugoslav military's use of civilians as "human shields," particularly in the village of Korisa, where 87 died on May 13. But the report also concludes that nine incidents were a result of attacks on targets that were "non-military in function" and therefore illegitimate or questionable. Among them, it says, was the headquarters of Serb Radio and Television in Belgrade, where 16 civilians died during an April 23 raid, as well as the New Belgrade heating plant and seven bridges that were neither on major transportation routes nor had other evident military functions.

The report urges NATO to establish an independent commission to investigate violations of international humanitarian law, which requires attackers to distinguish between military and civilian targets and take precautions to avoid attacks on civilians. It also recommends that NATO alter its targeting and bombing procedures.

Asked why the Pentagon had not attempted its own accounting of civilian deaths, the high-ranking officer cited the difficulty of obtaining credible information in Serbia. But those involved in the Human Rights Watch report said their effort showed otherwise.

"We've demonstrated an assessment can be done and done fairly and in a meticulous way," said William M. Arkin, a military consultant who led the investigation, "and everyone would benefit from doing it, because it would ensure lower casualties in the future if we understood why civilians died."

The report attributes the deaths of up to 150 civilians to the use of cluster bombs by U.S. and British warplanes. The most publicized case occurred in Nis on May 7, when a cluster bomb intended for an airfield exploded early, sending bomblets into a downtown market, medical clinic and pathology center. A few days later, the White House quietly issued a directive prohibiting use of cluster bombs by U.S. forces, although British warplanes continued to drop them, the report says.

The report also reveals that late in the war, after several daylight strikes on urban bridges resulted in civilian casualties, U.S. military commanders issued an order restricting attacks on bridges to periods when civilians would be less at risk.

Among the deadliest and most troubling incidents, the report says, were attacks on convoys in which fleeing refugees were intermingled with military forces. The report raises the question of whether a requirement in the first weeks of the war that NATO pilots fly at altitudes above 15,000 feet, to minimize the risk of Yugoslav antiaircraft fire, contributed to the deaths by making identification of targets more difficult.

"Insufficient evidence exists to answer that question conclusively at this point," the report concludes.

But after two convoy incidents on April 12 and April 14, NATO issued new rules prohibiting attacks if civilian vehicles were found mixed with military traffic, the report says.

The report, which is based on visits by investigators to 91 cities, towns and villages in Yugoslavia over a three-week period in August, focuses only on civilian deaths. It says a later study will deal with civilian property damage and also provide documentation for 150 incidents in which an unspecified number of civilians were injured.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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