Cohen rejects charges on Kosovo airwar

WASHINGTON, Feb 8, 2000 -- (Reuters) U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen on Monday rejected charges by a human rights group that U.S. and NATO planners subjected civilians to unacceptable risks in last spring's air war against Serbia.

"We don't want to see any innocent people harmed, and we took extraordinary care to achieve those results," he said in response to a report from Human Rights Watch that accused NATO of violating international humanitarian law.

The New York based group said raids by allied warplanes and cruise missiles killed around 500 civilians in the 11-week war in Serbia's Kosovo province.

Cohen did not dispute the figure, but told reporters in response to questions at the Pentagon that he personally had participated in detailed daily consultations with military leaders and others on what targets would be attacked and what that mean to civilians.

"The fact of the matter is that we reviewed with great care every recommended target in terms of what the potential was for harming innocent civilians," the grim-faced secretary said.

"I can tell you that I reviewed it with the chairman (of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff), even at the White House," he added.

"We went over in great detail what type of activity was contemplated, what time of day or night, what angle of attack, what was the likely explosive impact, in order to reduce the loss of innocent lives."

In its 79-page report released in Washington, Human Rights Watch said the deaths during NATO's bombing campaign came in 90 separate incidents, a number it said was far higher than NATO's member governments have admitted. It said about a third of the incidents and more than half the deaths occurred as a result of attacks on illegitimate or questionable targets.

The Yugoslav government has claimed that NATO was responsible perhaps more than 5,000 civilian deaths, and Cohen said on Monday that the figure of 500 in the report showed that Belgrade lied repeatedly about casualties.

He spoke as the Pentagon on Monday released a final, unclassified report on lessons learned in the war.

That detailed Pentagon assessment was essentially the same as an earlier report that concluded America's European allies were far behind the United States in military capability and should get more smart weapons as well as upgrading military communications and force mobility.

Monday's report also noted that the United States was spending more than $3 billion over a six-year period beginning this year to address deficiencies revealed by the war in electronic-warfare "jamming" aircraft, intelligence gathering and stockpiles of precision-guided bombs and missiles.

"The department has instituted a course of action to ensure the lessons of this operation are not lost," Cohen and Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the joint chiefs, said in the report.

They said the outcome of the war in Kosovo was a direct result of military skill, support from Congress, close cooperation among the 19 NATO allies and "the unflagging support of the American people."

"An abiding 'lesson learned' from this operation is that sustaining all of these is critical for the future security of the nation," they added.

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