Doubt over Nato's Kosovo toll

Monday, 7 February, 2000

About 500 civilians were killed by Nato's air campaign against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo conflict last year an independent investigation has concluded.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch group says civilian fatalities occurred in some 90 incidents - about three times the number accepted by the military alliance itself.

Its report discounts claims by the Yugoslav authorities that the civilian death toll from the air attacks in Kosovo and Serbia may have approached 5,000.

But it says Nato could have done more to minimise the number of non-combatants killed by its raids and is critical of the use of cluster bombs.

The report is likely to renew the controversy over the alliance's conduct during the war and its reliance on high-altitude bombing.

Nato has never given an estimate on the number of individual civilian deaths caused by its actions.

But Pentagon spokesmen have previously conceded that there may have been what they term "collateral damage" in some 20 to 30 incidents.

Many observers believe a definitive calculation of the full human cost of the air campaign is probably impossible.

Air campaign criticised

The Human Rights Watch report, compiled after visits to more than 90 towns and villages in Yugoslavia, is the first independent assessment based upon a detailed research.

It says that there were civilian deaths in some 90 separate incidents.

About a third of these incidents were in Kosovo, several relating to air attacks against road convoys.

The report says that Nato pilots should have done more to identify targets properly though it also points to evidence that in at least one case, Yugoslav forces used displaced civilians as human shields.

The report makes particular criticism of Nato's use of cluster bombs near populated areas.

It asserts that after one particularly bad incident of cluster munitions going astray in Nis, the United States stopped using the bombs, but it says that British aircraft continued to do so.

Human Rights Watch also says that a small number of the targets chosen were not legitimate military locations - not least the Serb Radio and Television headquarters in Belgrade.

Nato insists - as it did throughout the campaign - that every effort was made to minimise civilian casualties.

And it says much greater loss of life among ethnic Albanian civilians was caused by Yugoslav paramilitary forces.

High-altitude failures

However, critics have long accused Nato of being reckless with the lives of Yugoslav civilians.

Although Nato's pilots put themselves out of the range of Serb anti-aircraft fire when they flew at high altitudes the accuracy of their targeting was diminished - increasing the chances of civilian casualties.

Many commentators have claimed that the tactic was partially inspired by the fear that the loss of pilots would have undermined the unity of Nato members to use military action to end Serb ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

But as a result there were a series of blunders when Nato hit hospitals, civilian trains and a convoy of fleeing refugees.

In the most embarassing incident the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was largely destroyed even though the building's identity was clearly marked on street maps.

Nato has denied subsequent media claims that the strike was not a mistake and was intended to knock out a Serb communication centre that China was said to be secretly allowing to operate within its embassy.

Original article