JEFF SALLOTCanadian pilots killed civilians
Monday, May 22, 2000
Ottawa -- Senior Canadian military commanders say their pilots probably killed innocent civilians during the Kosovo air war last year despite elaborate precautions and vetoing several questionable targets that NATO assigned.
Those precautions, the commanders say, included having Canadian Forces lawyers vet every assigned target to determine that each bombing run met the tests of international and Canadian law on the reasonable use of lethal force.
Despite those measures, the commanders say, the odds are that Canadian bombs caused unintended damage, injury and death.
In evidence presented recently to a parliamentary committee, the government acknowledged that 28 per cent of the laser-guided "smart" bombs dropped by Canadian pilots missed their targets. That means about 100 of the 361 laser-guided bombs exploded somewhere other than on a military target.
"I do believe we caused collateral damage. I'm certain that we did," air force Colonel Dwight Davies, the Canadian task force commander for most of the Kosovo campaign, said.
"Some civilian structures were knocked down that we didn't intend to. There is a distinct possibility that some civilians were killed that we never intended to," Col. Davies, now wing commander at the fighter base at Bagotville, Que., said in a recent interview.
"But to my knowledge, I can't tell you when or which mission that it might have occurred on."
Rear Admiral Bruce MacLean, the director of security policy for the Canadian Forces, told the parliamentary committee that "conflict is and always will be very dirty and very ugly and there will always be accidents and there will always be miscues, but that's the nature of the business."
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has never identified Canadian pilots with any of the high-profile mistakes, such as the bombing of a passenger train south of Belgrade three weeks into the war.
Some targets were hit so many times by bombs from different NATO countries during the 78-day campaign that it is impossible to sort out who did what damage when, Col. Davies said.
Selecting targets was a tough business because many of the Yugoslav military installations were in built-up areas where civilians lived, another senior air force officer, Colonel Yvan Houle, said.
The importance of the target had to be weighed against the risk of collateral damage, he said.
"With high-value targets, there is a point where the chain of command has to accept a certain element of risk," Col. Houle said.
Whether accepting risk also means accepting legal responsibility when things go wrong and bombs go astray is a question being asked at an inquiry by the Commons committee on foreign affairs. The committee completed hearings this week, and its report is due next month.
Meanwhile, Michael Mandel, a law professor at York University's Osgoode Hall, and an international group of lawyers are pressing the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal at The Hague to prosecute Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and other NATO leaders for murder, arguing that the air campaign was illegal from the start because it was not authorized by the United Nations.
The government categorically denies all suggestions that anything about Canada's involvement in the bombing was illegal. "Canada's actions in Kosovo are completely defensible, both legally and morally," the government says in a recent written submission to the Commons committee.
To back its claim, the government outlined the precautions that were taken before each bombing mission by the 18 Canadian Forces Hornet fighter jets assigned to NATO. Canada, one of the few NATO countries equipped with laser-guided bombs, flew 10 per cent of the alliance's air attacks.
Only five of the 18 NATO countries dropped bombs on Yugoslavia: the United States, Britain, France, Spain and Canada. Ambassadors from all 18 countries set the strategy for the campaign at meetings of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels.
"Every target that NATO attacked was put through a rigorous review procedure to avoid civilian casualties," the government statement says.
In addition, "for every Canadian mission flown, a Canadian Forces legal officer carefully examined the target that had been assigned with a view towards its legitimacy and relevance under Canadian and international legal standards."
If a target assigned by NATO did not meet those standards, the Canadian task force commander refused the target, the statement says, without further elaboration.
"It became very evident to me early on that I had to be fairly careful about what our guys were doing, so I instituted a process whereby the legal staff would look at the targets to make sure the law of armed conflict would not be violated," Col. Davies said.
"The flight lead [pilot] and the lawyer would have a pretty hard look at it to see whether it was a doable target, a legal target, and what the level of collateral risk was."
Col. Davies, who was the Canadian task force commander for the first seven weeks of the air campaign, recalled rejecting a daylight attack on a critical Yugoslav satellite communications facility after examining aerial reconnaissance photos and realizing that there was a large parking lot with civilian cars parked in it. "The risk of collateral damage was extreme."
He persuaded NATO superiors to take the communications facility off the target list for the day. The facility was hit later in a night raid when few, if any, civilian employees were around.
On other occasions he rejected targets that were too close to villages or other civilian structures and "the risk of collateral damage was greater than I was willing to accept," Col. Davies said.
He said he based his calls on the capabilities of his pilots, their aircraft and their munitions.
It was rare, but pilots sometimes made mistakes identifying targets. They might release their bombs and then realize, "Oh my God, this is not the target. This is something else. This is a farm," Col. Davies said. But the smart-bomb technology allowed the pilots to point the laser target "designator" in another direction and steer the bomb off into a field or some other safe place.
This happened 1 or 2 per cent of the time, Col. Davies estimated.
He recalled another instance when a Canadian pilot who was assigned to bomb a bridge arrived at the target to find a large truck parked on the span. The pilot could not determine whether it was a civilian or military truck. He radioed NATO's air campaign headquarters for instructions. Lieutenant-General Michael Short, the U.S. officer in charge of the air campaign, told the pilot to return to base in Aviano, Italy, with his bomb load rather than risk killing civilians.
There were sometimes sharp disagreements among the NATO allies about the legitimacy of some targets. For instance, throughout the war, France blocked efforts by the United States and Britain to include Belgrade's bridges on the target list.