No war crimes probe of Nato's YU bombing

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 5, 2000 -- (Reuters) Chief UN war crimes tribunal prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told the Security Council on Friday there were no grounds for opening an investigation into allegations of crimes by NATO during its 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.

"Although some mistakes were made by NATO, I am very satisfied that there was no deliberate targeting of civilians or unlawful military targets by NATO during the bombing campaign," she said.

Del Ponte, a former Swiss attorney general, was referring to an 11-week NATO bombing campaign aimed at halting Yugoslav repression of the Albanian inhabitants of the Serb province of Kosovo. The late March-to-early June bombing was followed by the U.N.-endorsed entry into Kosovo of a NATO force and a UN civil administration.

Briefing an open meeting of the council, Del Ponte referred to a number of complaints against NATO, including from lawyers acting on behalf of Yugoslavia and a Russian parliamentary commission.

"I am now able to announce my conclusion, following a full consideration of my team's assessment of all complaints and allegations, that there is no basis for opening an investigating into any of those allegations or into other incidents related to the NATO bombing."

Del Ponte said Yugoslavia had submitted "a substantial amount of material concerning particular incidents" relating to the NATO bombing. A number of reports and commentaries had also been published by human rights organizations and others.

Del Ponte, who is also chief prosecutor of the UN tribunal for Rwanda, scene of a 1994 genocide, gave no details of the allegations against NATO. But a number of bombing and targeting errors reported during the NATO campaign led to civilian casualties.

One of the most highly publicized incidents, blamed on errors in intelligence and mapping that the United States provided to NATO, resulted in an attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade that killed several Chinese nationals.

Del Ponte said an important consequence of the NATO campaign, and of war crimes indictments handed down last year against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian officials, was the unwillingness of the Belgrade authorities to cooperate with the tribunal.

"Since these events, there has literally been no cooperation with my office. This severely hampers my ability to conclude my investigations involving Serbian victims, particularly where such victims are residing in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia," she said.

She and her investigators had been denied visas to enter the country, she added.

When allegations were made that the tribunal was anti-Serb and that there was an imbalance in the indictments issued, "the fact that I am unable to gain access to the victims and evidence makes such allegations rather hollow," she said.

Russian deputy UN representative Gennadi Gatilov, whose country is a traditional ally of the Serbs, told the council he noted what Del Ponte said about "the investigation of the illegal NATO aggression" against Yugoslavia.

"However, we believe the decision ... to be premature, since more serious, more fundamental grounds for this decision are not forthcoming." he said. "Each fact must be carefully investigated" and details given to the Security Council.

Criticizing the work of the UN Yugoslav tribunal, he said it had been "destructive for the settlement in the Balkans" and had taken an anti-Serb tack. Of its 50 indictments, 43 were against Serbs, he added.

Del Ponte, in a sharp, direct response to the Russian envoy, said she was "rather stupefied in particular when it was said that there is a politicization in our work."

"I completely reject that accusation. It is an accusation I will not accept," she said. "For months I have been attempting to get in touch with the authorities of the Russian Federation to tell them what our work is about and how we do it."

Unfortunately it had not been possible to establish those contacts, "so I take this opportunity, distinguished ambassador, to ask you to help set up these contacts so that I can finally explain our work, to show that there is nothing political in our work," she said.

In her opening statement, she said that, since the UN tribunal had jurisdiction over all potential war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, she considered it her "obligation and responsibility as an independent prosecutor to assess the complaints and allegations" against NATO.

Del Ponte said her predecessor, Louise Arbor of Canada, established a working group in May 1999 comprising military lawyers, military analysts and other experts to examine and assess all allegations against NATO.

"The analysis of the material has quite properly taken some time and has involved an examination of all facts and a detailed legal analysis of all aspects involving the tribunal's jurisdiction." She would soon release the details of her assessment and the criteria applied, she said.

The U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes matters, David Scheffer, who attended the council meeting, welcomed Del Ponte's finding that there would be no investigation of the NATO bombing.

Speaking to reporters later, he said the tribunal could have rejected the allegations at the outset. By taking a year to examine them rigorously, it had been "bending over backwards to be as fair and equitable as possible."

There had "never been an armed conflict in the history of human kind" where there had been more rigorous discipline in targeting objectives in compliance with international humanitarian law, Scheffer said.

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