FOCUS: WAR IN EUROPE: Counting the corpses in a propaganda battle

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The Independent Online
ight after night Nato bombs and missiles rain on Serbia, and each morning the Serbian authorities announce how many civilians have been killed in the raids - some 225 in 43 days of attacks, according to media reports. This includes Friday's night's strike on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the cluster bombing of a crowded market and a hospital in the southern city of Nis.

This total appears accurate - as far as it goes. The official Serbian media have refrained from reckless claims about civilian deaths, although the authorities say at least 500 have been killed. Media figures for individual incidents have turned out to be more or less correct when foreign journalists have been in a position to verify them.

But this is still a propaganda war: where Western correspondents go, and what they see, are controlled by the Serbian authorities, who release information only when it helps their cause, casting them as the innocent victim of an aggressive, expansionist Nato. On several occasions, Nato has been forced to acknowledge that initial Serbian reports of a misdirected attack were accurate. Last Saturday, Nato admitted hitting a bus north of Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina. The Serbs said 39 people had been killed, although foreign journalists counted 23 bodies.

What the picture leaves out is the extent of military casualties, on which Belgrade has been totally silent, and what is happening in Kosovo itself. Some Western journalists have been allowed in on orchestrated press trips, but none have been able to follow up consistent accounts of systematic murder of Kosovar Albanians. The numbers run into thousands, if not tens of thousands.

Some bombing incidents remain in dispute. Last week the Serbian authorities said 20 civilians died in a Nato strike on a bus near the Montenegro border. Nato denied responsibility, saying there was "no evidence" to support the claim. It suggested that the Kosovo Liberation Army might have ambushed the road on which the bus was travelling.

But although most reports of civilian deaths cannot be verified, defence experts concede that most Serb claims about Nato's "collateral damage" have proved accurate.

And it will happen again. The Serbs will gleefully drag Western journalists off to see the next civilian tragedy, while Nato will announce an investigation of the incident. When it comes to events such as the Chinese embassy bombing, there will be no reporting restrictions.