Nato 'deliberately attacked civilians in Serbia'

Robert Fisk

7 June 2000

Only five days after Nato was "exonerated" by the International War Crimes Tribunal for its killing of civilians in Yugoslavia last year, Amnesty International today publishes a blistering attack on the Alliance, accusing it of committing serious violations of the rules of war, unlawful killings and -- in the case of the bombing of Serbia's television headquarters -- a war crime.

The 65-page Amnesty report details a number of mass killings of civilians in Nato raids and states that "civilian deaths could have been significantly reduced if Nato forces had fully adhered to the rules of war".

Legalistic in nature but damning in content -- the document reminds readers that Amnesty repeatedly condemned Serb atrocities against Kosovo Albanians -- the report highlights inconsistencies and obfuscation by Nato's official spokesmen. Although Nato told Amnesty that pilots operated under "strict Rules of Engagement", it refused to disclose details of the "rules" or the principles underlying them. The report says: "They did not answer specific questions Amnesty International raised about specific incidents ..."

Amnesty records that Nato aircraft flew 10,484 strike missions over Serbia and that Serbian statistics of civilian deaths in Nato raids range from 400-600 up to 1,500. It specifically condemns Nato for an attack on a bridge at Varvarin on 30 May last year, which killed at least 11 civilians. "Nato forces failed to suspend their attack after it was evident that they had struck civilians," Amnesty says.

When it attacked convoys of Albanian refugees near Djakovica on 14 April and in Korisa on 13 May, "Nato failed to take necessary precautions to minimise civilian casualties".

The report says Nato repeatedly gave priority to pilots' safety at the cost of civilian lives. In several investigations of civilian deaths, Amnesty quotes from reports in The Independent, including an investigation into the bombing of a hospital at Surdulica on 31 May. The Independent disclosed in November that Serb soldiers were sheltering on the ground floor of the hospital when it was bombed but that all the casualties were civilian refugees living on the upper floors.

Amnesty says: "If Nato intentionally bombed the hospital complex because it believed it was housing soldiers, it may well have violated the laws of war. According to Article 50(3) of Protocol 1, [of the Geneva Conventions] 'the presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character'.

"The hospital complex was clearly a civilian object with a large civilian population, the presence of soldiers would not have deprived the civilians or the hospital compound of their protected status." Some of Amnesty's harshest criticism is directed at the 23 April bombing of Serb television headquarters. "General Wesley Clark has stated, 'We knew when we struck that there would be alternate means of getting the Serb Television. There's no single switch to turn off everything but we thought it was a good move to strike it, and the political leadership agreed with us.'

"In other words, Nato deliberately attacked a civilian object, killing 16 civilians, for the purpose of disrupting Serb television broadcasts in the middle of the night for approximately three hours. It is hard to see how this can be consistent with the rule of proportionality."

On 17 May last year, Nato's secretary general, Javier Solana, wrote to Amnesty in response to its "grave concern" over the TV bombing, stating that RTS (Serb Radio and Television) facilities "are being used as radio relay stations and transmitters to support the activities of the ... military and special police forces, and therefore they represent legitimate military targets".

But at a meeting with Nato officials in Brussels early this year Amnesty was informed that Mr Solana's reference "was to other attacks on RTS infrastructure and not this particular attack on RTS headquarters."

The US Defense Department, Amnesty recalls, justified the television station bombing because it was "a facility used for propaganda purposes" and Amnesty itself says that Tony Blair "appeared to be hinting [in a subsequent BBC documentary] that one of the reasons that the station was targeted was because its video footage of the human toll of Nato mistakes ... was being re-broadcast by Western media outlets and was thereby undermining support for the war within the alliance".

Of the Nato destruction of the train at Gurdulica bridge on 12 April, Amnesty says: "Nato's explanation of the bombing -- particularly General Clark's account of the pilot's rationale for continuing the attack after he had hit the train -- suggests that the [American] pilot had understood that the mission was to destroy the bridge regardless of the cost in terms of civilian casualties ..."

Nato had not, Amnesty adds, "taken sufficient precautionary measures to ensure there was no civilian traffic in the vicinity of the bridge before launching the first attack". Amnesty quotes the Nato spokesman James Shea as admitting that the video of the train shown to the press at the time was speeded up (to three times its original speed) because Nato analysts routinely reviewed tapes at speed.

Mr Shea, Amnesty says, "said that the [Nato] press office was at fault for clearing the tape for public screening without slowing it down to the original speed".


Nato bombs TV station in Serbia

Robert Fisk

23 April 1999

Hanging upside-down from the wreckage was a dead man, in his fifties perhaps, although a benevolent grey dust had covered his face. Not far away, also upside-down - his legs trapped between tons of concrete and steel - was a younger man in a pullover, face grey, blood dribbling from his head on to the rubble beneath.

Deep inside the tangle of cement and plastic and iron, in what had once been the make-up room next to the broadcasting studio of Serb Television, was all that was left of a young woman, burnt alive when Nato's missile exploded in the radio control room. Within six hours, the Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, declared the place a "legitimate target."

It wasn't an argument worth debating with the wounded - one of them a young technician who could only be extracted from the hundreds of tons of concrete in which he was encased by amputating both his legs. Nor with the silent hundreds who gathered in front of the still-smoking ruin at dawn yesterday, lost for words as they stood in the little glade of trees beside St Marko's Cathedral, where Belgrade's red and cream trams turn round.

A Belgrade fireman pulled at one of the bodies for all of 30 seconds before he realised that the man, swinging back and forth amid the wreckage, was dead. By dusk last night, 10 crushed bodies - two of them women - had been tugged from beneath the concrete, another man had died in hospital and 15 other technicians and secretaries still lay buried. A fireman reported hearing a voice from the depths as the heavens opened, turning into mud the muck and dust of a building that Ms. Short had declared to be a "propaganda machine."

We had all wondered how long it would be before Nato decided that Radio Televizija Srbija should join the list of "military" targets. Spokesmen had long objected to its crude propaganda - itincluded a Nato symbol turning into a swastika and a montage of Madeleine Albright growing Dracula teeth in front of a burning building. It never reported on the tens of thousands of Albanian refugees who spoke of executions and "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. It endlessly repeated films that depicted Yugoslav soldiers as idealised heroes defending their country. It carried soporific tapes of President Slobodan Milosevic meeting patriarchs, Cossacks, Russian envoys and the Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova.

The channel was showing an American interview with Mr Milosevic when the first cruise missile smashed into the station's control room just after two o'clock yesterday morning. But did this justify killing the night staff in their studios and taping rooms? Two weeks ago, Nato's spokesmen had been suggesting that RTS would have to carry six hours of Western television a day if it was to survive - CNN's bland, safe coverage of events presumably offering some balance to the rubbish churned out on the RTS news.

But once Nato decided this was as preposterous as it was impracticable, its spokesman announced that the station was not on the list of Nato targets. Then, on Monday, CNN's bosses called up from Atlanta to inform the satellite boys in Belgrade that they should pull out of the RTS offices.

Against the wishes of other Nato nations, so the word went, General Wesley Clark had decided to bomb Serb television. CNN withdrew from the building in Takovska Street. And that night, we were all invited to have coffee and orange juice in the studios. The building was likely to be a target of the "Nato aggressor", according to Goran Matic, a Yugoslav federal minister, as he walked us through the ground floor of the doomed building. Yet, oddly, we did not take him seriously. Even when the air-raid siren sounded, I stayed for another coffee.

Surely Nato wouldn't waste its bombs on this tiresome station with its third-rate propaganda and old movies, let alone kill its staff. Yesterday morning, the moment I heard the cruise missile scream over my hotel roof, I knew I was wrong. There was a thunderous explosion and a mile-high cloud of dust as four storeys collapsed to the ground, sandwiching offices, machines, transmitters and people into a pile of rubble only 15 feet high.

Yet, within six hours, Serb television was back on the air, beaming its programmes from secret transmitters, the female anchorwoman reading the news from pieces of pink paper between pre-recorded films of Serbian folk-songs and ancient Orthodox churches. All along, the Serbs had been ready for just such an attack. We had not believed Nato capable of such ferocity.

The Serbs had. The crowds still stood in the park as darkness fell, watching the men with drills punching their way through the concrete for more survivors. By that time, explanations were flowing from Nato's birthday celebrations in Washington. Serbia's "propaganda machine" had been prolonging the war.

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