NATO Bomb Said to Hit Belgrade Hospital
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 21, 1999; Page A1
BRUSSELS, May 20 – NATO warplanes returned to Belgrade today for the first time since the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy two weeks ago, carrying out a predawn attack that Yugoslav officials said killed four people in a hospital and damaged the residences of the Swedish, Spanish and Norwegian ambassadors and the Libyan Embassy. Another attack late tonight reportedly damaged the Swiss ambassador's home.
NATO confirmed that one of eight laser-guided bombs intended for a military barracks in the predawn attack overshot its target by 500 yards. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said "one of the bombs was misdirected for technical reasons," but he declined to give further details or acknowledge that a hospital had been hit.
The early morning attack drew an angry response from Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, who said it was "unacceptable" that NATO continues to drop powerful bombs in the center of Belgrade. The Swedish government filed a formal protest with NATO.
The airstrike came just 90 minutes after Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin left Belgrade following his latest meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic aimed at reaching a diplomatic settlement to the conflict. In Moscow, Russian officials said there had been no breakthrough, although Chernomyrdin tonight discussed the shape of a peace plan with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.
For the second straight day, NATO and U.S. officials said they had evidence of growing disaffection in the ranks of the Yugoslav army in Kosovo, the focus of the conflict, citing reports of desertions by government troops as well as anti-war protests in some cities in Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.
The U.S. Senate, meanwhile, gave final approval to a $15 billion emergency spending package to finance the war and provide a range of humanitarian and disaster relief.
Sections of Belgrade's Dr. Dragisa Misovic Hospital, which is in the upscale Dedinje district where Milosevic lives and works, were reduced to rubble by the predawn NATO airstrike, according to reports from the scene, which said three patients and a security guard were killed.
The official Yugoslav news agency said the hospital's intensive-care unit was leveled and a neurological building severely damaged. Pregnant women and infants in a nearby maternity unit had to be relocated, the agency said, adding that most of the windows in the maternity and gynecological wards were blown out.
Serbian Health Minister Leposava Milicevic told reporters that the death toll could rise because rescue teams were still searching the rubble. "Patients in coma or paralyzed, babies – they seem to be NATO's ideal targets," Milicevic said, her voice trembling. "They cannot hide, cannot run, cannot complain. They can only die silently."
The blasts also caused minor damage to nearby residences of the Swedish, Norwegian and Spanish ambassadors, although no one was injured. Norway and Spain are NATO members and withdrew their diplomatic personnel in March before NATO air attacks on Yugoslavia began. Swedish Ambassador Mat Staffanson said nine windows were shattered and a door blown off its hinges at his residence, which is only 200 feet from the hospital.
Late tonight, Staffanson happened to be attending a reception at the Swiss ambassador's home in Belgrade when an attack on a nearby fuel depot blew out the windows of that residence, state media said. No injuries were reported, and NATO had no immediate comment on the incident.
The bombing of the hospital and the damage to the diplomatic buildings are the latest in a series of apparent NATO mishaps that have aroused concern in some NATO countries that public confidence in the nearly two-month-old air campaign is being undermined. In a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels today, Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema appeared to criticize the resumption of bombing in Belgrade, saying that the air offensive should focus on targets in Kosovo.
"We believe there should be great care to avoid the errors that would increase the sense of unease among our voters," said D'Alema, reflecting the growing opposition to the war in such NATO countries as Greece, Italy and Germany.
NATO's May 7 bombing of the Chinese Embassy – which killed three Chinese journalists – quickly mushroomed into a diplomatic debacle. In what appeared to be further fallout from that errant strike, China has now barred all U.S. warships from visiting Hong Kong until at least July, the Reuters news agency reported today. Five scheduled visits have been canceled.
NATO had suspended raids on Belgrade after the Chinese Embassy bombing while military planners checked and rechecked their intelligence and targeting information. At least one top general had publicly criticized the bombing halt, and others had vowed that it would resume, arguing that the allies could not afford to give Milosevic a sanctuary from which to wage his war against the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo, a province of Serbia.
In addition to the attacks on Belgrade today, good weather over Kosovo allowed NATO to resume bombing Yugoslav army troops and Serbian police and paramilitary units in the province after several days of limited operations. Among the targets hit was a prison in the town of Istok where, according to Kosovo journalists, several well-known ethnic Albanian activists were being held. Asked about possible civilian casualties at the prison, however, NATO military spokesman Gen. Walter Jertz replied: "It is not a prison. It is a significant military target."
While unable to provide details on the Belgrade bombing, NATO spokesmen had plenty to say on the subject of declining morale among Yugoslav forces in Kosovo as NATO pressed ahead with its campaign to stoke domestic opposition to the Milosevic government. The security forces are "being hurt pretty badly," Lt. Gen. John W. Hendrix, commanding officer of U.S. combat forces in Albania, said in an interview today. "We believe there have been some sizable desertions."
A senior NATO diplomat said "there are signs that Milosevic is finally looking for a way out." The diplomat said intelligence reports suggest that Milosevic's associates have begun to question the wisdom of continuing to hold out against NATO's punishing air attacks.
Shea said two battalions of the Yugoslav 7th Armored Brigade had suddenly headed home after hearing reports on Radio Free Europe that police had fired water cannons at groups of mothers from their hometowns who have been protesting the war. Shea said they left behind "sizable amounts of ammunition and equipment" that fell into the hands of ethnic Albanian separatist rebels.
Shea also asserted that increasing numbers of youths are fleeing towns in southern Serbia to avoid being conscripted into the army, taking refuge in Belgrade. Draft evaders were also reported arriving in neighboring Hungary and Croatia.
News reports from Yugoslavia seemed to confirm a growing unease with the war. In the town of Cacak, the site of repeated anti-war protests, Mayor Velimir Ilic accused Milosevic of destroying the country with his misrule. "All that is happening to us is so ugly," he said. "The Serbian people cannot forgive any longer."
In another development, President Milo Djukanovic of Montenegro – Serbia's disaffected smaller partner in the Yugoslav federation – accused the Belgrade government of planning a military coup in Montenegro after Yugoslav troops seized control of the republic's border crossings.
Correspondents David Hoffman in Moscow and Molly Moore in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company