Leading Article: At last an explanation for Djakovica's dead

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AFTER FIVE days of denials and evasions, Nato has finally come clean and admitted what this newspaper's Robert Fisk, and others, have been reporting from the ground: it was Allied planes that were responsible for the attack on a refugee convoy south east of Djakovica last Wednesday, with the loss of up to 80 civilian lives.

Nato still rejects the notion that Allied aircraft could have been responsible for machine-gunning some of those slaughtered. Its generals continue to argue that the Serbs may have removed signs of military vehicles between the time of the attack and the visit of Western journalists.

Such prevarication is unnecessary, as the admission is belated. Accidents do happen in the fog of war. The mistaken Djakovica attacks bears no equivalence to the deliberate massacres that have been perpetrated by the Serbs.

Nato and its spokesmen should have trusted the public with the truth from the start. What is worrying is not so much the incident itself, although that is tragic enough, but what it tells us of Allied tactics. The slaughter on the Djakovica road was the result of bombing from high altitude in a war in which Nato still feels fearful of engaging the enemy at close quarters. Although Allied commanders are reluctant to admit it, the initial month of bombing has damaged Serbian logistics but it has not taken out President Milosevic's air defences. Low-flying aircraft remain vulnerable to his fixed defences and to the hand-held rockets that his troops carry. At the same time, the dispersal of the Serbian paramilitaries in Kosovo makes it extremely difficult to target them accurately.

That is no counsel of despair, just one of sober realism. Having entered this war, however ill-prepared, the Allies must win it. That requires clear-eyed assessment within Nato and honesty to the public at large.