Besieged Nato rejects Serb `ploy'

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The Independent Online
NATO BRUSQUELY dismissed Serbia's offer yesterday to withdraw some troops from Kosovo as a crude ploy, and said the bombing campaign would go on until Belgrade met all its conditions for a peace deal.

The offer by President Slobodan Milosevic came after a day of apologies and furious recriminations over Nato's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on Friday. The low point for the allies came with Peking's threat to veto plans for an international peace- keeping force for Kosovo authorised by the United Nations.

The Yugoslav army announced the withdrawal, starting immediately, on the basis that its campaign against the Kosovo rebels of the KLA had ended in complete triumph for Belgrade. But Mr Milosevic's government did not clarify how many troops and paramilitary police would leave the province. The official Tanjug news agency said only that the number of troops would be cut to "peacetime levels prior to [Nato's] aggression".

"If there ever was a definition of a half measure that is it," the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said of Belgrade's latest initiative. The White House spokesman, Joe Lockhart, was sceptical, saying: "We have seen no evidence at all of any troop withdrawal." A more upbeat President Clinton said "any progress" was helpful but added: "We have to do better." Downing Street was dismissive. "It's probably just a ploy," a spokesman said.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, insisted in a statement to MPs, largely loyally supported by Labour backbenchers, that the bombings would continue. But there were signs of a break in the bipartisan approach to the war, with Michael Howard, the Tory foreign affairs spokesman, castigating Nato's "act of gross incompetence" and warning that there was "grave disquiet" over the conduct of the war.

Members of the UN Security Council met in emergency session in New York late last night to debate the embassy bombing. The meeting was called by Peking, which hoped to extract a formal statement from the council condemning the attack. On Friday night, the council expressed its "shock and concern" but declined to endorse a tougher statement drafted by China that would have condemned a "serious violation of international law".

China's President, Jiang Zemin, told his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, by telephone yesterday that continued Nato bombing of Yugoslavia made it "impossible for the UN Security Council to discuss any plan to solve the problem" in Kosovo. This amounts to a de facto veto of the G8 agreement last week for a UN-backed peace-keeping force.

Peking also announced it was severing all dialogue with Washington on weapons proliferation, human rights and international security. Further retaliatory measures are expected for what Mr Jiang called Nato's "gunboat policy".

President Clinton offered a new public apology to China yesterday but coupled his regrets with a warning not to confuse "a tragic mistake" with Serbia's "systematic and deliberate act of ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.

In his televised apology, Mr Clinton said: "I want to say to the Chinese people and the leaders of China, `I regret this, and I apologise'."

Ms Albright promised a "comprehensive review of the targeting databases - Nato will provide China with a full explanation of how this could have occurred".

For the third day, thousands of Chinese protesters marched through Peking's embassy district yesterday in a government-orchestrated dem-onstration of public fury. "Clinton, son of a bitch. Blair, grandson of a bitch" one banner read. But, after two days of mayhem, the Chinese government seemed determined to keep better control. A massive presence of helmeted riot police was in place, and a strict police cordon blocked the entrance to the area for ordinary Chinese who did not belong to the groups of factory workers, monks, pensioners and school-children marshalled for protest.

Stones and paint bombs were still thrown at the American and British embassies, but for the first time the police ensured that many demonstrators discarded their home-made ammunition before hurling abuse at the Western powers' embassies.

Further details emerged yesterday of how the mistake occurred. The US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, confirmed reports that the map consulted by Pentagon targeters dated from 1992. It had been revised in 1997 and again in 1998, but the revisions did not include the move of the Chinese embassy to its new building.

The "institutional error", he said, was compounded when the building of the supply and procurement agency, which was the intended target, was incorrectly identified on the military targeting maps. Mr Cohen said procedures would be tightened to avoid similar errors in future.

Expressing regret for the bombing and the casualties caused - but stopping short of a formal apology - Mr Cohen said embassies were on a list of "no-strike targets" and if the embassy had been mapped correctly, the erroneous position for the supply depot would have shown up automatically. "It defies all logic," he said, "that we would deliberately target the Chinese embassy."