The War in the Balkans: Air strikes start to get personal

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The Independent Online
WE STOOD on the well-groomed lawns beneath the plain trees of Novi Beograd yesterday afternoon and looked at what George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, called "the very heart of Milosevic's bloodstained regime". Overlarge blackbirds and magpies fluttered around the great smouldering ruin of the Usce Business Centre, a curtain of pale blue smoke drifting from the upper storeys where two of three cruise missiles had smashed into the building before dawn. But striding across the lawn, the waistcoated Yugoslav Minister without Portfolio, Goran Matic, begged to differ. The 23-storey pile with its 100ft television transmitter, he told us, was nothing less than "the symbol of Yugoslavia's existence".

No one disputed that the Black Building, as it was disrespectfully called by the people of Belgrade, had been - as Nato might put it - very seriously degraded. Tons of concrete and glass had been blasted from the upper floors into the car park while up all four outer walls crept the dark stain of a huge internal fire. Three television channels had been blasted off the air, hence Mr Matic's reference to Yugoslavia's "existence", while two solitary flags, one red for socialism, the other the tricolour of Serbia, hung limply from the offices of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia; hence Mr Robertson's reference to the "bloodstained regime".

Given the fact that the President's SPS headquarters were struck - as well as smaller offices of the Yugoslav Left party of Mira Markovic (better known as Mrs Milosevic) - there's one conclusion anyone in Yugoslavia could make: Nato's war is getting personal. But the target also allowed the Serbs to claim that Nato was trying to drive Yugoslavia's television services off the air. The sports channel SOS vanished in a milli-second, along with transmission facilities for the punk-rock Pink Channel of Zeljko Mitrovic (a Markovic protege), Kosava Television and the nominally independent but pro-Milosevic BK channel.

Had not Pink TV been playing a diet of Hollywood movies these past weeks, Mr Matic asked rhetorically. "How could we name these attacks as anything but Monty Python's Flying Circus? You only have to see this image of our television stations to understand that for Nato our media is more dangerous than our military. I don't need to spend as much time as Jamie Shea to explain this."

The fact that Mr Matic watches Nato's spokesman - extracts from Mr Shea's briefings often appear on Serb television if they suit Yugoslavia's purposes - says a lot about the Balkan information war. So does the diet of Western movies shown on Serb television. JFK and Nixon led off the first week of war, The Wizard of Oz the second. But RTS, Radio Television Serbia - whose pro- Milosevic news broadcasts now run to two hours (without, of course, any mention of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo) - has not been touched. Its directors had invited the foreign press to visit the station only two nights earlier, warning pointedly that Nato was due to attack the channel's headquarters.

So convinced was Mr Matic that the business centre would be attacked that on Tuesday night he jokingly asked one of its security men, Uros Sujakovic, why he was still in the building. "I told him, 'The building will be hit'," Mr Matic said yesterday. "And he left the place just before the missiles came. So my joke had a positive effect." Rescue workers were still trying to penetrate the upper floors yesterday evening to look for workers less fortunate than Mr Sujakovic.

But for most Yugoslavs, the attack on the Black Building has less to do with television broadcasts than the broadening of Nato targets. From the strictly military targets attacked in the first week, Nato's assaults have increased each week to embrace more and more civilian buildings and facilities.

From barracks and anti- aircraft defences, Nato has moved on to destroy road and rail bridges, oil refineries, car and plastics factories, chemical facilities, a cotton yarn factory, television relay transmitters, electrical grids and cigarette factories. This is, of course, the same pattern followed in the bombardment of Iraq in 1991.

If Nato continues the same pattern, electricity and water supplies will be hit, as will telephone communications. Novi Beograd received contaminated water after its oil heating plant was hit two weeks ago. As the targets are chosen more promiscuously, greater civilian casualties are inevitable.

On 12 April, a Nato jet destroyed a passenger train. Two days later, an attack supposedly intended to destroy Serb paramilitary forces in Kosovo slaughtered 74 ethnic Albania refugees.

"They can call the road out there a military supply line if they want," my Belgrade hotel receptionist said acidly yesterday. Outside, a queue had formed for cigarettes now the tobacco factories at Nis and Vranje have been attacked. Soldiers smoke cigarettes. Another military target.