Several hundred Serb-led Yugoslav troops are believed to have been killed in a single raid by a U.S. B-52 bomber that caught them massing near the Kosovo-Albania border on Monday, NATO sources said.
The B-52 was ordered to drop a heavy payload of cluster bombs on the troop concentration, estimated to number between 800 and 1,200 soldiers. Initial aerial assessments showed such massive annihilation that fewer than half the targeted troops are believed to have survived, according to alliance military sources.
"This hit must have really stunned them," a NATO official said. "There's no doubt that the Serbs suffered enormous casualties. They were absolutely pulverized." The casualty toll may have been the highest suffered by security forces in Kosovo in a single attack since NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia began 11 weeks ago.
The attack came as NATO warplanes were seeking to escalate pressure on Yugoslav forces in the field just hours after talks collapsed Monday between Belgrade's general staff and NATO commanders on a timetable for the withdrawal of Yugoslav soldiers and Serbian police from Kosovo -- a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. Those talks resumed today amid signs that a peace agreement could take effect this week.
NATO military sources said the targets of the bombing were two Yugoslav army battalions spotted by assembling on a hillside in the Mt. Pastrik area, near the Albanian border. The troops were apparently gathering to try to thwart a local offensive by ethnic Albanian guerrillas seeking to establish new supply corridors to the interior of Kosovo from their border strongholds.
The sources said the B-52 bomber was diverted from its assigned target in another area and ordered to drop cluster bombs -- antipersonnel munitions that are particularly effective against massed troops. The B-52 planes employed over Yugoslavia are based in Britain and can carry 500-pound Mark-82 gravity bombs as well as cluster weapons.
The recent offensive by ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army has succeeded in flushing into the open many Yugoslav and Serbian units that were previously well dispersed and hidden in ways that had made it difficult for NATO warplanes to strike at them. As the troops have moved out of their entrenched positions, the armada of more than 1,100 allied warplanes has been able to attack them to much greater effect than earlier in the bombing campaign.
NATO had carried out its air campaign with relative restraint for four days after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's decision Thursday to accept alliance terms for a withdrawal of his forces from Kosovo. But NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, ordered allied planes to step up their attacks Monday after talks to fix a timetable on the Yugoslav pullout were suspended early in the day after more than 13 hours of discussion. At the time, NATO accused the Yugoslav generals of engaging in stalling tactics.
As a reflection of its determination to rachet up the pressure on the Yugoslav armed forces, NATO warplanes flew more than 650 sorties in the past 24 hours, matching mission levels flown prior to last week's tentative peace accord. Targets included fuel-storage and military facilities close to Belgrade, but most of the airstrikes were concentrated on the 40,000 Yugoslav troops and Serbian police still hunkered down in Kosovo.
"I'm sure that if you were in the field in Kosovo with the Yugoslav army yesterday, you would not have perceived this [attack] as holding back at all," said NATO spokesman Jamie Shea. "The pressure was very intense, particularly in the sorties carried out by B-52s in the Mount Pastrik area."