Nato attack on train kills ten

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NATO JETS blasted a Yugoslav passenger train off a railway bridge in southern Serbia yesterday, killing at least10 people and bringing to well over 60 the number of civilians to have died at the alliance's hands in the past two weeks. Nato spokesmen said they "regretted" civilian casualties on the train - part of which caught fire when two carriages plunged into a ravine - but claimed that the railway track was "an important military supply line". The Yugoslav government called it a "criminal attack".

Two missiles were fired by a Nato jet at the bridge near Leskovac, 200 miles south of Belgrade as the passenger train, apparently on route from the Serbian capital via Skopje to Thessalonika in Greece, was on a span above the deep gorge of the Morava river. Initial reports suggested that the first missile brought down cables and immobilised the electric locomotive hauling the carriages - Yugoslav State Railways train No 393 - over the chasm. The second missile exploded beside the carriages, blasting two of them right off the bridge and setting fire to others.

Blood-covered debris lay below the bridge and most of the dead, who included a 10-year-old child, were reported to have been burned alive. Nabojsa Vujevic, the Yugoslav foreign ministry spokesman, said that several Greek journalists were travelling home on the train from Belgrade. A road crosses the gorge at the same point as the railway bridge near Leskovac but the Nato jet appeared to be aiming at the track.

Nato is believed to possess film of the attack - although it did not choose to make the tape public last night as it normally does after its air raids - and a Nato spokesman in Brussels said its bombing attacks on Yugoslav targets would continue. An oil refinery was hit on Monday morning and another missile smashed into the giant Zastava car factory at Kragujevac where 120 Serb workers were wounded last week.

While it insists that it takes "every precaution" to prevent civilian casualties, Nato's attacks have been so broadened in the past 10 days that large numbers of Serb civilian deaths have become inevitable.

A Nato jet - believed by Yugoslav forces to be an RAF Harrier - killed up to 24 civilians at Aleksinac 10 days ago while another Nato air strike on the civilian centre of Pristina last week killed 10 civilians, half of them Muslims. Civilians were driving over the river Danube at Novi Sad north of Belgrade last week when a Nato missile struck the bridge. Only a miracle saved the motorists from plunging into the river.

Nato's regrets are becoming routine. It said that a "malfunction" in a bomb aimed at a military target may have been responsible for the Aleksinac slaughter and yesterday again expressed its sorrow at the killings near Leskovac. Even as it did so, Nato foreign ministers insisted that it would continue with its air bombardment of Yugoslavia because the killings and suffering of Kosovo Albanian refugees at Serb hands represented a "fundamental challenge to the values of democracy and human right and the rule of law". The bombing would continue until President Slobodan Milosevic withdrew his military units from the Serbian province, Nato said.

Yesterday evening, James Shea, Nato's spokesman in Brussels, acknowledged that there was a train "on or near" the Leskovac bridge at the time of the air strike. "But I want to stress very strongly indeed that there was no intention whatever to cause damage on the train," he said. "Nato has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid collateral casualties during its operations."

But the broadening of Nato's attack rules to include bridges and railways mean that it is prepared to risk killing civilians. Nato's initial attacks against Yugoslavia were almost exclusively targeted on military barracks and air defence locations - so specifically that even Yugoslav army officers acknowledged their accuracy. But once the alliance decided to attack ordinary transport systems, it knew that civilians would inevitably be killed. Any road in Yugoslavia can be called a "military supply line" - it was a phrase used by western forces every day during the 1991 Gulf war to justify attacks which killed civilians in Iraq. Aerial reconnaissance pictures would have shown Nato planners that Yugoslav passenger trains were still running scheduled services on many lines.

Serbia claimed last night that it had killed 150 Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas - the Belgrade authorities, as usual, called them "terrorists" - during a battle in a forest near Morina close to the Albanian border. Yugoslavia regularly says that it has killed large numbers of KLA men; subsequent investigation often proves the claims to be exaggerated.