Nato tries to explain its deadly mistake

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NATO was scrambling yesterday to recover from its worst "own goal" of the Kosovo conflict after admitting it had attacked the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing four people, in the mistaken belief that it was a Yugoslav arms warehouse.

The error, called a war crime by China and "barbaric" by Russia at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, points towards a serious failure of intelligence. Three bombs struck precisely at the co-ordinates programmed into them, but it was not the building Nato believed it to be. The alliance is now investigating whether it was deliberately fed false information by sources in Belgrade.

Apologising for the attack, Javier Solana, Nato Secretary-General, said: "The bombing of the Chinese embassy was a deeply regrettable mistake."

At a hastily-called overnight meeting of the Security Council, hours after the attack, Russia, like China a permanent member of the council, said Nato was guilty of "barbaric and unconscionable" actions, and Boris Yeltsin issued a scathing statement. "The destruction of a foreign embassy is not only an act of vandalism but a further flagrant violation of international law," Russia's President said. He ordered his Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, to cancel a trip to Britain which had been due to begin yesterday.

President Bill Clinton, visiting tornado victims in Oklahoma yesterday, said the bombing had been "a tragic mistake", adding: "I want to offer my sincere regret and my condolences to both the leaders and the people of China." President Slobodan Milosevic, whose diplomatic isolation may be eased by the attack, was also quick to offer his condolences to China, but Mr Clinton insisted: "I think it's important that Nato stay the course."

In Peking, protesters attacked the US embassy, breaking windows and wrecking cars, while in the southern city of Chengdu demonstrators entered the compound of the American consulate and started fires. Crowds also surrounded the British embassy in Peking, chanting "English pigs", "English dogs", and holding placards reading "Overthrow the Imperialist Running Dogs" and "We don't forgive your crimes".

Nato said there would be no pause in the bombing, which resumed yesterday with attacks on bridges, fuel depots and military barracks. "The determination and solidarity amongst the Nato nations is the same today as it was yesterday," Mr Solana said. But he expressed concern that diplomacy might stall.

However, the Russian mediator, Viktor Chernomyrdin, arrived in Bonn yesterday, for talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, UN envoy to the Balkans Carl Bildt and Kosovo's most prominent ethnic Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova.

After the dinner meeting, Schroeder, Bildt, and Chernomyrdin all stressed that Nato's accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade must not be allowed to derail progress towards resolving the Kosovo crisis. "This problem must be solved in a political way as quickly as possible," Chernomyrdin said. "The foundation is there. The wish is there. We're on the right path."

Tony Blair's official spokesman had said earlier: "We continue to build all the diplomatic bridges that we can." In an attempt to shore up flagging support for the air strikes, Mr Blair plans to visit Albania and Bulgaria next week, following his trip to Macedonia last week.

The bombing of the embassy came in the heaviest night of raids on Belgrade so far. Bombs and missiles hit the Hotel Yugoslavia - where the paramilitary and indicted war criminal Arkan has a casino - two military headquarters and a command bunker which is thought to be the nerve centre of the Serbs' war effort.