Serbia offensive: Massive bombardment by Nato smashes into Serb air defences

Military Strategy
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NATO AIRCRAFT and warships finally launched their long-awaited air offensive against Yugoslavia last night, with early evidence suggesting the West had made a more concerted effort against the Serbs than even that directed against Iraq in Operation Desert Fox last December.

While following a broadly similar strategy, the scope and the weight of the opening waves of attacks against Serb- ian targets showed the full power of the assembled alliance forces was being immediately brought to bear.

The targets hit ranged from northern Serbia to the coast of Montenegro in the west and to Kosovo in the south.

Nato confirmed last night that at least one plane had been shot down over northern Kosovo.

The first wave hit targets close to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, shortly after 8.00pm local time, blacking out the city of 280,000 people. Witnesses reported two enormous explosions. They interrupted a dead calm on the deserted streets and sent great red flashes across the night sky.

Small-arms fire broke out moments afterwards, followed by heavy-calibre bursts. These were probably Serbian anti-aircraft batteries opening up on targets that were, in fact, several hundred miles away.

Minutes before, Javier Solana, Nato's Secretary General, had announced in Brussels that Nato had begun air strikes against military targets in Yugoslavia.

It was later confirmed that the first strikes near Pristina had been by cruise missiles, launched from US B52 bombers based in Britain.

The eight bombers, which flew from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, were each capable of carrying 20 missiles. They would have been fired from 500- 1,000km from their targets. The bombers were already landing back in Britain as the extent of the air strikes became clear.

The strategy taking shape ressembled that used against Iraq. The cruise missiles, launched both from the air, from six warships in the Adriatic and from the British submarine HMS Splendid, would first hammer the Yugoslav air defences, so clearing the way for manned aircraft to carry out their missions with a reduced risk. The scale of the opening strikes reflects the respect the West has for the capability of Yugoslavia's integrated air defence system, and the concerns about the danger it would pose to allied pilots.

It is believed to be far more sophisticated and extensive than anything Iraq has ever possessed.

This picture was borne out by another round of early strikes against the main airport and radar installations close to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. Witnesses reported up to eight missiles slamming targets, including an army military barracks in Danilovgrad which was reported to be in flames after being hit.

Air raid sirens wailed in the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, at around 8.10pm local time. Shortly after, two orange flashes were seen close to the city. Sirens wailed for about 60 seconds but lights in the city remained on and traffic continued moving as usual.

Nato's principal target there was the huge military base and airport of Batajnica, north of Belgrade. the largest military installation near the capital.

Three more explosions were later reported to the south of the capital. To the north of Belgrade, five big installations were reported to have been hit around the city of Novi Sad.

The key car and weaponry manufacturing plant in the central Serbian city of Kragujevac was also hit, according to local radio. There were no immediate reports of the extent of damage or injuries.

As well as the B-52 aircraft from Britain, there were reports of large numbers of sorties being flown by warplanes from bases in Italy.

These took off in waves following the first strikes by cruise missiles. They included German Tornado bombers flying from Piacenza, and American F-16 and F-18 fighter aircraft flying from Aviano in the north-east of the country. The fighters would normally be deployed to fly in cover for the bombers.

It was confirmed that British forces had taken part in the attacks, but no details were given. Eight RAF Harrier GR7 bombers, equipped with Paveway II laser guided bombs, are based at Gioia del Colle, in southern Italy.

Defence officials in Washington reported that the B-2, long-range stealth bomber had also seen action.

The Yugoslav army general staff in a statement released at 9pm last night said Nato had "carried out an aggression" against Yugoslavia and that the action had started an hour before. The statement said more than 20 targets had been attacked and that air strikes were still going on.

Yugoslav air defence systems had not been damaged and "remain in operational condition". It added that "Volunteers [for military service] are turning up en masse."

The statement continued: "The first explosions marked the end of international law, suspended the United Nations charter and opened a new and sad page in world history."

John Davison