Robinson criticises Nato's bombing

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THE UNITED Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, yesterday attacked the conduct of Nato's air campaign, on a visit to Yugoslavia. Speaking in the southern town of Nis, after it was bombed for the second time in less than a week, she criticised the Alliance's targets as being "very wide" and said that "civilian casualties are extremely high" with 1,200 dead and 5,000 injured.

The former Irish President condemned human rights abuses committed by Serbian forces in Kosovo and expressed disappointment that she had not been able to raise the matter of ethnic cleansing with President Slobodan Milosevic who declined to see her. In a statement she declared that the Yugoslav government must immediately end the "vicious human rights violations" that its army police and paramilitary forces are accused of in Kosovo and commit itself to the return of all refugees.

But she also appeared to criticise Nato for relying on a broadly targeted air campaign, instead of an operation with ground troops. Asked if the air campaign was endangering civilians more than a ground force would, she replied that the conduct of the campaign raised very serious questions. "I have responsibility as High Commissioner," she told journalists, "to express concern about the high number of deaths and injuries." Mrs Robinson quoted figures she had received from the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry which said 1,200 civilians had been killed by air strikes and some 5,000 injured. She did not say whether she had taken any steps to verify these figures.

Mrs Robinson visited Nis only hours after it was hit by Nato for the second time in less than a week.

Last Friday two of the cluster bombs, which contained multiple explosive charges and dispersed shrapnel over a wide area, detonated near a vegetable market and a hospital, killing some 13 people and injuring many more. Nato admitted to one bomb which it said had been aimed at an airfield near the city. On Wednesday at least two more cluster bombs exploded in civilian areas of Nis wounding a further 12 people and causing widespread damage to houses and cars which was later witnessed by Mrs Robinson. Yesterday, a European diplomat in Belgrade accused Nato of using "terror tactics" in its attacks on the city, which is home to the families of many of the Yugoslav servicemen in Kosovo.

Meanwhile, President Milosevic has for the first time, admitted that his forces are suffering "many" casualties in Kosovo where attacks are concentrated. His admission came in a statement congratulating the police and armed forces on their "success" in breaking what he called, "the terrorist gangs in Kosovo". The President went on to acknowledge that "many members" of the security forces had died "setting a shining example of bravery and loyalty". Later, state television gave the names of officers of the MUP, the notorious armed police responsible for terrorising Kosovo, who have been decorated by President Milosevic. It was not said if any were posthumous awards.