Liberation Of Kosovo: Bomb Damage: How fake guns and painting the roads fooled Nato

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NATO OFFICERS began to realise the discrepancy between their own claims and reality within hours of the start of the Yugoslav military withdrawal. In just the first stage of the Serbian retreat, they logged 250 tanks moving out of Kosovo - all undamaged - and at least 40,000 men. This was supposed to be the troop strength of the entire Third Army; thousands more soldiers left in the next three days.

All of which casts serious doubt on Nato's wartime propaganda. On 17 April, for example, Nato spokesman Jamie Shea was boasting that the alliance was "knocking the stuffing out of Milosevic" while General Wesley Clark, the Nato commander, said on 27 May that after 27,000 Nato sorties, his pilots had conducted "the most accurate bombing campaign in history." Although Nato repeatedly struck power stations and radio-television repeater stations - and suggested that it had killed more than 500 Yugoslav soldiers in a B-52 raid on Kosovo in the last week of bombing - it seems to have caused little damage to Serbian military equipment.

General Pavkovic's claim that the Third Army lost seven tanks, three transporters, 13 anti-tank guns and other artillery could not be disputed after a 400-mile tour of some of the most heavily-bombed areas of Kosovo last week. During my entire journey, I saw only four damaged Yugoslav army trucks, two abandoned lorries and a destroyed Serbian military jeep. Numerous barracks had been totally destroyed by cruise missiles - but the buildings appeared to have been empty when they were struck.

A Yugoslav military official in Belgrade claimed that histroops had discovered how to avoid attack. "They fired their missiles and then replaced the batteries with mock-ups," the source said. "The time it took Nato's photo-reconnaissance people to identify the point of fire and the vehicle location and return to bomb the mock-up was a minimum of 12 hours. So we knew when we had to move our equipment - every 12 hours."

The same source also said that army missile technicians had taken apart an unexploded US Tomahawk missile and concluded that its targeting partly depended on a chip that guided the rocket by heat sources rather than imagery. As a result, Yugoslav reservists were set to work burning tyres beside major road and rail bridges that would emit greater heat than the surface of the bridges themselves, and also painting the road on Kosovo bridges in many different colours - because the colours emit different degrees of heat. The tarmac of many bridges in southern Kosovo are in fact still coloured in red, yellow, purple and green rectangles.

The Yugoslav air force was meanwhile hidden from view. Although a number of its machines were destroyed - including three that were shot down - several MiG-29s were moved around the country, sometimes secreted at night in the trees off the motorway west of Belgrade, surrounded by farm machinery and metal sheeting so that Nato's photo-reconnaisance officers would not recognise their `signature'. "There wasn't enough room for the MiG-29s to fly in," an official here said. "As soon as you take off, you're approaching your own border. We quickly realised that flying was out and that combat was hopeless. The order was to sit and protect the aircraft, to save the lives of our pilots."

So why did President Milosevic agree to the entry of international troops into Kosovo when his army was still ready to fight? Some say he feared that a ground war would lead Nato troops all the way to Belgrade - and his own dispatch to the Hague on war crimes charges. But another source suggests that Viktor Chernomyrdin, Moscow's Balkan peace envoy and the head of Russia's multi-million dollar Gasprom project, threatened to cut off all gas to Yugoslavia if Belgrade did not accept the Nato-EU-Russian "peace" terms.

The Russian military is known to have been angered by Mr Chernomyrdin's activities - indeed, a Russian general publicly denounced the agreement as "confused" in the envoy's presence on his return to Moscow. And the Russian military clearly acted in defiance of its political leadership when it sent the first Russian contingent into Pristina. The officers involved had learned of Nato's desire to make their headquarters at Slatina when they heard Nato radio transmissions referring to Slatina as "Tuzla 2" - Tuzla being the Nato airstrip in Bosnia. Russia, according to the Yugoslavs, decided to move into Slatina while Nato commanders were arguing over whether British or US troops should enter Kosovo first.

Far from being an insignificant Balkan airfield - as British General Sir Michael Jackson has portrayed Pristina airport - the military airbase is one of the most sophisticated in the former Yugoslavia with an underground runway and nuclear bunkers. At least six Yugoslav MiG-21 jets spent the war there - undamaged by Nato bombing - and flew out of the airbase before Nato troops arrived in Pristina. The Russians reportedly want to transport into Kosovo Russian troops from the 106th Guards Division at Tula (two of whose regiments fought in Afghanistan) and from the 76th Guards Division based at Pskov near St Petersburg.

Belgrade's first suspicions that the Americans might be planning a military campaign against them were aroused last summer when Yugoslav military intelligence officers learned that US forces were building a Mash-type hospital in Bulgaria close to the River Yerma.

These suspicions, according to one official, were increased when Belgrade heard that the Americans were constructing a reserve military airbase at Kustendil in Bulgaria - a base which they say was used during Nato's war as a targeting navigation station for B-52s and a transport base for C-130 transport aircraft.

"During the war, the army realised they could survive when Nato started bombing civilian targets," the Yugoslav source said. "We came to the conclusion that Nato knew it couldn't find our vehicles concealed in the hills and forests so it deliberately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure. That's when we knew we could maintain our battle readiness." Despite the bombing of dozens of civilian targets, Nato repeatedly stated that it never intended to cause civilian casualties.

What has not, predictably, emerged here are the grim statistics of "ethnic cleansing" and the degree to which the regular Yugoslav army did - or did not - have a hand in the assault on Kosovo's Albanian population. Most eyewitness reports of massacres over the past two months suggest that paramilitary or interior ministry forces rather than regular troops were principally involved. But last month's indictments against Yugoslav leaders by the International War Crimes Tribunal include the name of General Dragoljub Ojdanic, the Yugoslav army chief of staff.