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Horror at site of another precisionblunder

Julian Manyon witnesses the devastation following the bombing of Korisa by Nato
THE BODIES had been removed, but scraps of charred flesh remained in an area littered with smashed tractors. A ghastly smell of decomposition hung above the wreckage. Mattresses, cooking pots and bundles of clothing - the personal belongings of the victims of Nato's latest blunder in the Kosovo air campaign - lay scattered all around.

The killing ground in which at least 80 Kosovar Albanians died just before dawn on Friday is surprisingly concentrated. Two small open yards, each the size of a tennis court, face each other on either side of the highway between Prizren and Djakovica.

All the ordnance fell inside the yards. A bomb-damaged sign over one of them indicated that it was a store for agricultural products. It was here, according to the accounts of survivors, that some 600 refugees were herded by the Serbian police when they came down from their hiding place in the hills, three days before the bombing.

Lying in nearby Prizren hospital with a serious leg injury, 71-year-old Bislin Ahmeta said he had been asleep with other members of his family in an open trailer behind their tractor when they were woken by several giant explosions. "It was chaos," he said. "We were terrified."

The old man and his family were lucky. His tractor was parked in the smaller of the two yards, where many survived. In the one across the road, hit apparently by bombs which exploded above ground level, the devastation was total. Here the tractors and their sleeping owners were parked wheel to wheel, and the force of the blasts ripped people and machinery to pieces. All that was left of one tractor was its rear axle, smashed in two.

Our inspection of the wreckage yesterday was hasty. Our official guides, including a naval captain from the army press office in Belgrade, were clearly a little unnerved by the constant drone of Nato jets overhead and the crump of explosions, one of them visible as a plume of grey smoke a mile away in the hills. But it was clear that if it was the two tractor parks that Nato aimed at, they were not in any sense "a legitimate military target".

Some clue to events came in the account of survivors sheltering in a nearby village house. The story they told illustrates the calvary that Kosovo's Albanian population has endured since the Nato air campaign began and indicates how the Serbian police contributed to the ghastly tragedy of Korisa.

The village, they said, had originally contained some 4,000 ethnic Albanians, most of whom fled when the bombing, and the major Serbian offensive against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), began. Half of the villagers made it across the border to Albania, but the others were turned back by the police and returned to their homes.

Then fighting broke out again. Serbian forces burned houses in the village, and the remaining people fled back into the hills. "We loaded our tractors with flour," said 65-year-old Said Rejaji, another survivor of the bombing, "and we were able to make bread."

After another fortnight in the hills, armed Serbian police found the villagers and ordered them to return to Korisa. But when they came back last week, they were not allowed to go back to their original homes. The police told them that the village, which stretches for more than a mile beside the road, still had to be cleared of KLA fighters. They were ordered to park their tractors in the two yards and remain there, guarded by five Serbian policemen who assured the refugees that they would be safe.

Was this a trap for Nato, or did it simply reflect the fact, which we witnessed yesterday, that the Serbian army has billeted soldiers in some of the village houses to hide them from the bombing? There is not enough evidence to say. In any case, Nato came to Korisa, lured perhaps by the sight of so many vehicles packed together, their identity indistinct from 30,000ft.

If the truth is told, this may emerge, like the bombing of the refugee convoy at Djakovica last month, as another case of misidentification by pilots who can apparently hit the precise vehicle they want, without necessarily being able to tell if it is a refugee tractor or an army truck. As for the "military target" Nato insists it attacked, the Serbian army remains in Korisa in the shape of small groups of soldiers dispersed among the Albanian houses.

Many of the owners of those houses will never be coming back to claim them, regardless of the fate of the air campaign, and Nato has suffered another propaganda defeat.

Julian Manyon is special correspondent for ITN in Yugoslavia.