The General's war of words

Yesterday, General Wesley Clark, supreme commander of Nato forces in the Kosovo campaign, had his say. About the tanks he hit, about the forces he faced, about the war he fought. Today, Robert Fisk (left), his most outspoken critic, has his. About lame excuses, `freakish' coincidences and a strange meeting between the good general and the enemy warlord
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I suppose it was inevitable, after all the rubbish churned out by Nato's spokesmen during the bombardment of Yugoslavia, that General Wesley Clark - now apparently in disgrace after urging British paratroops to go to war with the Russians at Pristina airport - would make one desperate last effort to prove that Nato was "on target".

At the alliance headquarters in Brussels yesterday evening, of course, there was no talk about the hundreds of civilians who died under Nato's bombs, no elucidation of Clark's heated argument with General Sir Michael Jackson - at which Jackson is reported to have told Clark that he wouldn't "start World War Three for you". Clark declined to talk about this frightening night-time discussion; and the journalists at Nato headquarters, as they had done so many times in the war, allowed him to get away with it.

No, what the good general wanted to tell us was that Nato really had hit more than 100 Serb tanks. Never mind that dozens of journalists who watched the Serb retreat through Kosovo never saw a damaged tank, let alone a destroyed one. Never mind that we could only account for three destroyed armoured vehicles and five lorries (plus a jeep which I saw upended in the ruins of Djakovica police station. No, Nato had the precise figures for us - more than 93 tanks and 153 armoured personnel carriers were destroyed by Nato.

Now the Serb paramilitary forces in Kosovo were murderous. They committed acts - hundreds of acts - of evil. Rape, butchery, executions beside newly-dug mass graves, the forced eviction of half a people; genocide. And the Serb army was contaminated by this, if only because its soldiers were sometimes present and saw and knew. One day we may know if some of them also participated. But the one thing the Serb Third Army in Kosovo - and the air force - did know was how to conceal their armour.

Their trucks, cannons, heavy artillery, their hundreds of tanks left Kosovo in those last days - in front of our eyes - with, quite literally, not a scratch on their paint. Now I've covered wars in Iran, the Gulf, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Lebanon. And I've seen armies in retreat. When the Syrians pulled out of Beirut in 1982, they hauled some of their damaged T-55 battle-tanks along with them. Most were crippled so badly, their tons of armour torn apart by Israeli bombs and scattered over half a square mile, that it was months before the Lebanese could gather up the pieces and truck them off in convoys of lorries.

But Nato - aware that it was talking to a sceptical if diffident audience of defence correspondents - produced a few photographs of broken armour, claimed it had on-the-ground evidence of 26 destroyed tanks, and promised that anonymous "multiple sources" could account for 67 others. And what happened to those 67 others? The wily Serbs, we were asked to believe, secretly took away the remains when no one was looking before the war ended. In other words, as Nato's bombs exploded around them, as their army was being steadily "degraded" (I am using the words of our old friend James Shea, the Nato spokesman), the Serb soldiers were steadily lifting hundreds of tons of scrap metal - tank tracks, chassis, massive gun turrets and heavy armour - into lorries and driving them out of Kosovo.

Now maybe the Serbs are that clever. Maybe they are that stupid - and remember, before the war ended, they thought they were going to fight Nato on the ground and were preparing for a land battle in which thousands of tanks and armoured personnel carriers would litter the battlefield of Kosovo. Maybe at night, under cloud cover, they had nothing better to do - exhausted in their trenches and hiding in the houses of murdered or evicted Albanians - than to slip out for a few tank removal exercises. I doubt it. Why on earth would an army preparing for a bloodbath spend its precious time trucking its military garbage out of Kosovo?

I can understand why Nato - and in particular its commander, General Clark, would want to believe this. I can understand why he would want us to believe it. After all, his planes routinely flew too high to be hit and so bombed hospitals, a railway train, a bridge packed with villagers, two housing estates, and refugee convoys. For those of us who saw these appalling sights, there was even a suspicion towards the end that Nato was deliberately targeting civilians.

In the first week of the war, the Yugoslavs regularly allowed journalists to see the bomb damage to Yugoslav army barracks. The soldiers had abandoned the buildings days before but Nato planes, I remember, blasted some direct hits into the barracks at Kraljevo. I even remember a Yugoslav army colonel say that "if they can hit only military targets like this, they may be my enemy, but I have to respect them". But this didn't last.

The first indication we had that something was really wrong came when a Harrier jet attacked a bridge at Grdulice when a train was approaching. Clark was to say later that the train's appearance that afternoon was a "freakish coincidence" - the arrival of a passenger train on a main line apparently being "freakish" to a Nato general, though most of us have seen trains on bridges before. The Nato line was that the rockets were released too late when the pilot saw the train.

The passengers told a different story. They said that the first rockets hit a road bridge above the train and the falling concrete cut the electric cables which gave the locomotive its power. This appears to be what we see on the bit of film Nato released at the time. But the passengers said the plane then hovered over a field for a few seconds - it was, of course, a British-made Harrier - and then fired a second rocket into the train.

There were many other equally disturbing incidents. At Varvarin, for example, American jets hit the narrow road bridge at midday - too narrow for any tank - and then, just when the rescuers had emerged to help the maimed - perhaps a quarter of an hour - the planes returned to bomb the rescuers.

Was Nato unwilling to risk the life of a single western soldier to save the Kosovo Albanians from the mass graves, so desperate to end the war that it turned on the civilians in the hope that it would break Milosevic (a man who cared precious little for his own civilians, let alone any others)?

I still find it difficult to shake off this horrible suspicion. Yes, the Serb monsters were evil beyond imagination. I saw the "ethnic cleansing" as it took place. I visited those mass graves. But was this an excuse for Nato to destroy so many innocent lives?

Now Nato rules over anarchy in Kosovo. Jackson's lame excuse was that Nato - faced with revenge killings - could "only do so much"; which is probably not the kind of reply he'd give if his paras were fighting a determined enemy. Clark himself seems to be a lonely, isolated, slightly out-of-touch man - especially if Jackson really did think he might be about to start the Third World War. I still remember an American general who, long before the war, chatted away quite happily to another monster, General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb warlord. He even took a gift from Mladic - a pistol. The American general was called Wesley Clark. A hundred tanks indeed!