Nato pays price for hitting the wrong target

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a case of mistaken identity - the wrong guys got hit. Such was the tenor of Nato's apology only hours after its missiles wrecked the Chinese embassy in New Belgrade.

The wrong guys - Chinese diplomats and staff - clustered outside the shattered building, many of them still sprinkled with white dust after being pulled out by their rescuers. Clearly shocked, most refused to speak, whether because of a language barrier or because they had been ordered to keep silent was not clear. But one Chinese man lashed out at an American reporter who tried to question him, a clear sign of the undiplomatic anger that may make this the most costly blunder, in political terms, that Nato has yet committed in its air campaign.

The mistaken identity concerns the apparent error of at least one pilot who, flying over a city which had already been completely blacked out by earlier Nato strikes against the power grid, mistook the Chinese embassy for his assigned target. According to Nato's spokesman, Jamie Shea, this target was the Federal Department of Supply and Procurement, which, he maintained, has offices near the Chinese embassy, despite the fact that its normal seat has always been on the other side of the Sava river in Old Belgrade.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, before bringing his explanation into line with Mr Shea's, spoke of the nearby "war room of Arkan's Tigers". Cook was apparently referring to the Hotel Yugoslavia a few hundred yards from the embassy, where Arkan, recently indicted for war crimes, has long controlled a casino popular with Belgrade's gangsters. The hotel was also hit in last night's raids, leaving one guest dead, though whether this was a "Tiger" or not was unclear. Arkan himself, neatly dressed and apparently unruffled, arrived in the middle of the night in front of the bombed embassy and told local journalists that the attack was a war crime by the US.

At the embassy, which also serves as a residence for diplomats and other staff, four people were confirmed to have died, including an employee of the Chinese state news agency who was married to a diplomat, and another seven seriously hurt, including the military attache who is reported to have severe chest injuries. For much of the night Yugoslav emergency teams worked to put out the blaze and rescue survivors. Firemen placed ladders against the building's shattered facade, every window of which was blown out, and carefully carried people down the steps. In the early hours rescue work was interrupted when another Nato strike took place nearby.

In daylight I returned to the smashed building and was able to see that a missile or missiles - the Chinese say there were three - plunged through the embassy's roof and blew out the north side of the building from the inside. The Chinese official description that it had been completely wrecked from the basement to the fifth floor seemed accurate.

Down the street, I walked unhindered through the wreckage of the Hotel Yugoslavia, looking for any evidence that it had indeed been Arkan's war room. Two Nato missiles struck the main reception area, which is completely gutted, with hotel computers and travel brochures scattered among the rubble. Arkan's Grand Casino at one end of the building is also damaged, though a little less severely. I was invited in by salvage workers who explained I was the first foreign journalist to set foot inside the mirrored, purple-carpeted boudoir where Arkan once held court. Yesterday they were removing the roulette tables, bar furniture and a particularly vulgar wall plaque which their boss had apparently decreed must be taken to a place of safety. Of a war room, however, there was no sign.

Chinese embassy staff, meanwhile, were moving into the Hyatt Hotel, where many journalists are already ensconced. One group, dressed in dowdy clothes, was led by a serious looking bespectacled girl carrying what looked like a hunting rifle in a leather case. One of the few who was willing to speak asked simply in broken English: "Why are Nato after us? What did we do to them?"

Despite its apologies, Nato clearly faces an uphill task to convince the Chinese that the missile attack was indeed a mistake and not part of some deep-laid Western plot. The blunder could hardly be worse timed. China is, of course, one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council which is soon to consider the framework for a Kosovo peace agreement that was painfully hammered out between the G7 and Russia.

That agreement was remarkable for the cracks it papered over, notably the composition of the "civil and security presences" for Kosovo. There was already disagreement between the US and Russia over whether such a presence should be Nato-led and have a Nato "core". At the very least, the destruction of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade will provide the Russians with a new opportunity to seek to further dilute the concept of a peace-keeping force.

The bombing has shocked many diplomats in Belgrade. One ambassador said he was "appalled" by what he called "Nato's irresponsible act". The Yugoslavs are doing their best to fan the flames. Officials were at their most solicitous at the wrecked embassy, asking some Chinese diplomats if they could provide them with alternative accommodation. They have described the strike as a deliberate attack on China.

Journalists have come to slightly different conclusions. First, that the bombing is a boon to President Slobodan Milosevic at a moment when he is under mounting pressure. And second, if Nato pilots thought the Chinese embassy was a supply and procurement department, what do they think the Hyatt Hotel is?

Julian Manyon is special correspondent for ITN in Yugoslavia.