Observer - The truth behind America's raid on Belgrade


Sunday November 28, 1999

On May 7 this year the B2 - at $44 billion the world's most expensive plane - took off from Whiteman air force base in Missouri, its sleek black belly loaded with missiles, destined for Belgrade. It flew high across the Atlantic and Western Europe before opening its bomb doors over the Adriatic and releasing the most accurate air-drop munitions in the world - the JDAM flying bomb.

The JDAM uses four adjustable fins to control its position, continually checked and re-checked by fixes from seven satellites. It is so precise a weapon it is accurate to a range of less than two metres.

The bombs carried on that B2 rained down over the Serb capital and rocketed towards their target - the southern end of the Chinese Embassy - demolishing the office of the military attache and killing three `journalists'. But the midnight strike was so precise the embassy's north end was untouched, leaving the marble and glass of the front entrance and the ambassador's Mercedes and four flower pots unscathed.

The CIA, US State Department and British Foreign Office claimed the strike had hit the wrong building. It was, they regretted, a terrible mistake. Though America's trillion-dollar arsenal had been deployed, the target had been selected by an intelligence analyst using out-of-date maps. The strike on the Chinese Embassy came at a bad time for Nato's campaign against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Mistaken attacks on convoys of defenceless Albanian refugees had dented Western public opinion's belief in the rightness of the war; now the US war machine had hit the most diplomatically sensitive target possible - by mistake.

But as mobs stormed the US and British Embassies in Beijing, and Chinese President Jiang Zemin refused to take President Bill Cliton's phone calls, an entirely different story was being revealed on the other side of the world.

At the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Vincenza in northern Italy, British, Canadian and French air targeteers rounded on an American colonel on the morning of 8 May. Angrily they denounced the `cock-up'. The US colonel was relaxed. 'Bullshit,' he replied to the complaints. `That was great targeting ... we put two JDAMs down into the attache's office and took out the exact room we wanted ... they (the Chinese) won't be using that place for rebro (re-broadcasting radio transmissions) any more, and it will have given that bastard Arkan a headache.'

Last month The Observer raised the first serious challange to the official version of events and claimed the embassy was targeted directly. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described it as `balderdash'. Since then, as this paper's journalists have continued to pursue the story, more witnesses have come forward.

The true story - though it is being denied by everyone from Albright, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and CIA director George Tenet down - is that the Americans knew exactly what they are doing. The Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was deliberately targeted by the most precise weapons in the US arsenal because it was being used by Zeljko Raznatovic, the indicted war criminal better known as Arkan, to transmit messages to his `Tigers' - Serb death squads - in Kosovo.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack there were some among non-US staff who were suspicious. On 8 May they tapped into the Nato target computer and checked out the satellite co-ordinates for the Chinese Embassy. The co-ordinates were in the computer and they were correct. While the world was being told the CIA had used out-of-date maps, Nato's officers were looking at evidence that the CIA was bang on target.

Five weeks ago The Observer reported evidence gathered from sources within Nato - serving military officers who would be instantly sacked if named. Our account was denied by the CIA, by Albright and by Cook, who said there was not a `shred of evidence to support this rather wild story'.

The Observer has gone back to its original sources, and also spoken to other serving officers, from Nato colonels to intelligence officers to a military officer with the rank of a general. All are in agreement. The Chinese Embassy was deliberately bombed.

According to one of these sources, it was the fact that the embassy was being used to rebroadcast signals for Arkan and his White Tigers that swung the argument to hit the embassy. `The fact that it was an operating base for Arkan, an indicted war criminal, was something that convinced the Americans to strike. Had it just been a transmitter for the VJ (the Yugoslav Army), they might have held off.'

Arkan's spectre had come to loom large over the conflict in Kosovo. Indicted for his role in organising death squads in the war in Bosnia, his precise role in Kosovo is still not clear. But investigators working for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague had good reason to suspect that Arkan's death squads were playing a murderous role in Operation Horseshoe, Milosevic's plan to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its majority Albanian population.

But whether the signals intercepted were those of Arkan and his thugs or simply the Yugoslav army and police - both also implicated in atrocities in Kosovo - one thing now is clear. Nato was convinced that some of the radio broadcasts they were picking up were coming from within the Chinese Embassy itself.

The subject of intense speculation at the time, it is only now that The Observer has been able to confirm this. Confirmation of the Chinese Embassy's assistance to the Yugoslav war effort came in Paris last week. A senior French Defence Ministry official said bluntly that the building attacked on 7 May had been targeted precisely because it had been rebroadcasting Yugoslav signals - although the French insist they were never told the building was the Chinese Embassy.

`Not one of us had ever imagined this target could have been the embassy. We had been told simply that it was a military target that had been monitored transmitting signals to the Yugoslav army from its basement. It had been described to us as a communications target that would be taken out.' The French, however, are increasingly suspicious of what the Americans really knew. The same source continues: `What the Americans really knew, I wouldn't like to say.'

It is not only The Observer's Nato witnesses who have blown a hole in the CIA's original story - as rehearsed by Albright and Cook that the embassy was bombed by mistake because the agency used old maps of Belgrade to work out its target list. This is a cover story which nearly all experts, including one's of America's most eminent China hands, Ezra Vogel, have judged not credible. The US's own National Imagery and Mapping Agency describes the wrong map story as `a damned lie'.

The claims made by the CIA's director George Tenet to the Congressional Select Committee on Intelligence on 22 July have come under renewed scrutiny - and been found wanting. Tenet told the US Congressmen there were no visible signs that the building was an embassy, no flags and no insignia. But photographs taken in the immediate afermath of the attack show a different story. These pictures show the Red Flag at the main gate and two hoardings covered in Chinese script on the side of the building. The embassy was clearly marked by a sign in Serb saying `Ambasada Narodne Republike Kine' (Embassy of the People's Republic of China) - stark evidence that the CIA chief was not telling the whole truth.

Equally compelling is the fact that the location of the Chinese Embassy in soulless new Belgrade was hardly a state secret.

Opposite the Park of Peace and Friendship, the Chinese Embassy at Number 3 Cherry Blossom Boulevard stands mangled by missiles at one end; almost untouched at the other. The sheets that were knotted together to form makeshift escape routes for the diplomats, journalists, spies and other employees trapped inside still hang from the holes that were once the embassy's smoked glass windows, trailing between the white blinds and straggly blue-green curtains that still flap in the wind.

The reception room is still there, laid open to the elements by the bomb that sliced away its outer wall on the building's south side. Its reproduction Louis XIV sofa set stands under a row of gilded chandeliers and faces a hole the size of a crater in the adjacent building that was once the Chinese ambassador's home. That room and those sofas were familiar to Belgrade's diplomatic corps, who regularly met US diplomats at receptions in the building.

Officially the CIA's expla nation for hitting a building, well known to its diplomatic corps, is this: it used a flawed technique for locating the building they were supposed to bomb - an arms agency headquarters.

It is a version of events that no longer appears to stand up to scrutiny. For not only were the embassy co-ordinates in the Nato computer, as the air targeters discovered, but the Chinese Embassy, as has been confirmed to The Observer, had long been a prime target for Western intelligence, and would therefore have been extremely well identified.

The reason for the scrutiny was that for years the Chinese Communist regime has been co-operating with the Serbs in building up its military capability. The eyes and ears of the Western world - the US's National Security Agency and Britain's own GCHQ - were watching and listening.

And there was another issue, as a Nato air controller involved in the campaign made clear. `The Chinese Embassy had an electronic profile, which Nato had located and pinpointed.' According to this source, that data was forwarded to the joint intelligence operational centre at Mons, the headquarters of Nato in Europe. While initial scrutiny by US military and civilian officials showed that the area was part of a park owned by a Yugoslav army officers' fund, more recent maps provided by the Europeans showed the clear location of the embassy. It was on the banned list, according to a senior officer, and needed approval from the US Commander-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, to have it removed from that list and designated as a target.

It is this issue that has become the most contentious one between the US and its European Nato allies, especially France: that America was ordering missions outside of Nato's joint command structure that it kept from its fellow combatants. This month this issue surfaced in a bitter exchange between the two countries: France accusing America of running missions behind its back while America accused the French government of putting Nato pilots' lives at risk by vetoing targets. French officials in the United States - at the UN and in Washington - say privately that their government was `wary in the extreme' at the way targets were chosen by Nato during the Kosovo conflict.

`US Air Force and intelligence services had a direct hot line to the Nato planners in Brussels, but they were making their own selections, irrespective of the joint consultative process,' complained a French diplomat at the UN mission in New York.

Another was more forthright, stating that there was still `very great scepticism' among French diplomats at the CIA's explanation of an erroneous attack: `We still have an open mind,' said one official, `and there is still reason for us to believe that China's role and position in the Balkans could have led to an attack.'

Asked what could have been the motives for a deliberate attack, the official replied: `The possibility that the Chinese were helping the Yugoslavs in a number of ways, including militarily, and concern among American intelligence that China was indulged in a wholesale espionage against America.'

What is clear, however, from The Observer's sources is that the Combined Air Operations Centre at Vincenza was not informed of the targeting plan for the embassy because `all operations with stealth aircraft and other special systems were kept strictly close to the chest by the Americans ... they only told us after the event.'

The question now remains why America might have risked such a controversial attack. `The aim was to send a clear message to Milosevic that he should not use outside help in the shape of the Chinese,' said a Nato intelligence officer.

One source, a senior Nato air force officer, said: `I would lay money that the Chinese civilians killed by the bombing were intelligence officers. The Americans knew exactly what to hit and how to do it ... far from not knowing the target was an embassy, they must have been given architect's drawings.'

An intelligence expert told The Observer: `If it was the wrong building, why did they use the most precise weapons on Earth to hit the right end of that `wrong building'?'

http://www.newsunlimited.co.uk/observer/focus/story/0,3879,108792,00.html