Nato apologises for convoy deaths

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NATO APOLOGISED yesterday for attacking a column of Albanian refugees in Kosovo on Wednesday, killing at least 60 people, in what may prove the first big test of Western public support for the Balkan air campaign.

The Serbian authorities seized the opportunity of a propaganda windfall, dropped their ban on journalists in Kosovo and rushed foreign reporters to the scene of the carnage to interview wounded survivors under Serb supervision.

And although Nato admitted US pilots based in Italy did hit what they thought were military convoys near the western Kosovo town of Djakovica, questions remain unanswered over who was responsible for the machine- gunned bodies strewn along the Prizren-Djakovica road.

Nato played a tape-recording from the debriefing of an F-16 pilot who said he made two passes over a three-vehicle convoy near Djakovica and fired a laser-guided bomb at the lead vehicle on his third pass. The pilot said he saw villages burning below and attacked what he thought were Yugoslav army vehicles engaged in the ethnic cleansing of the region.

The pilot, whose name was not released, said on the tape: "I make a decision at that point that these are the people responsible for burning down the villages that I've seen so far. I go in, put my system on the lead vehicle and execute a laser-guided bomb attack on that vehicle, destroying the lead vehicle."

The Nato account still did not dovetail with the Serbian video footage showing mangled bodies next to a column of tractors and trailers.

In Washington and London, leaders said they would not be derailed by the "one tragic accident" from prosecuting an intensified air campaign against the forces of the Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said: "We regret these things deeply when they happen but that should not make us flinch from placing responsibility for this conflict squarely on the shoulders of Milosevic, who has begun this conflict." Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, added: "How dare they [the Serbs] produce crocodile tears for people killed in the conflict for which they themselves are responsible."

The White House said Nato would continue the air campaign into midsummer if necessary if the Serbs continued to drive the Albanians from Kosovo. The US Defense Secretary William Cohen said the campaign could go on for months and added: "This is not going to be quick or easy or neat."

Nato yesterday attacked army barracks in Belgrade and other cities, Serbian state television transmitters and more bridges. US Apache attack helicopters are arriving in Albania and the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible has taken up position in the Adriatic.