Nato kills top Serb officer in air raid

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The Independent Online
NATO YESTERDAY killed Yugoslavia's deputy air force commander, the highest-ranking officer to die in the Balkan war.

According to an official announcement in Belgrade, General Ljubisa Velickovic was "touring troops in the first line of defence" - an obvious reference to Kosovo - when he was killed. Sources in the Yugoslav army said the general was apparently killed in an air raid.

The 53-year-old, who held the post of assistant head of the air defence and air force supreme command, had been commander of Yugoslavia's air defence flying school and was for many years the senior instructor on the country's Russian-made MiG fighter jets.

Despite this success, Nato blundered again, in a very public fashion, yesterday, when alliance warplanes dropped almost 40 bombs on the Albanian border village of Morini. The attack forced local inhabitants, Albanian soldiers and police to flee the zone along the frontier with Kosovo.

The Albanians assumed that the first wave of bombs, before dawn yesterday, was a mistake, but the bombing continued for several hours and resumed in the afternoon while foreign journalists and television crews were in the village.

Residents speculated that Nato was trying to drive Albanians from the border zone, although no one had any idea why. Nato jets had pounded Serbian positions just across the border, including the Serbian customs post, the previous day.

The raids in effect left Serbian forces in control of the border crossing and, potentially, the deserted zone stretching almost a mile inside Albania.

Nato planes appeared to hit the Albanian customs post, yards from the crossing point used recently by hundreds of thousands of Kosovo refugees. Despite the bombardment, refugees continued to straggle across, though they found no one on the Albanian side.

The warplanes appeared to target a group of stone defence bunkers built by Albania's former Communist regime. The bombs destroyed six bunkers - which Albanian forces use as lavatories. "We thought it was a mistake, that they meant to hit the Serbs across the border. But they kept coming," a border policeman said.

Villagers poured from their homes and joined a mass exodus towards nearby Kukes, adding to the refugee crisis.

The blunder took place as diplomats claimed a settlement to the Kosovo crisis may be in sight. In a letter sent by the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, Zivadin Jovanovic, to his German counterpart, Joschka Fischer, Belgrade said Yugoslavia "has accepted G8 principles, including a United Nations presence [in Kosovo] and other elements to be decided by a UN Security Council resolution".

The G8 group agreed a statement on Kosovo that dovetailed with Nato's conditions, drawn up last month, for an end to the air campaign.

The Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari and Russia's Balkan envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, are expected in Belgrade today.

Full reports, pages 12-13