Villagers `used as shields by Serbs'

Air Strikes
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The Independent Online
AS NATO and Serbia traded accusations over who was to blame for the air strike that killed almost 80 villagers at Korisa in south-west Kosovo, Britain said it had new evidence that the Serb police herded the villagers down from the hills and into in a concentrated area until Nato attacked.

The casualties at Korisa last Thursday marked the highest civilian toll in a single bombing of the campaign and was a severe embarrassment to the alliance, coming only days after Nato rocketed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

The high toll, including more than 100 people injured, provoked Serbia to denounce a Nato "war crime" - but also drew accusations from the alliance that Serbs deliberately trapped the Albanians next to a known military target. It is a direct contravention of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and therefore a war crime, deliberately to draw civilians into the line of fire during conflict.

In London, the Defence minister John Spellar said yesterday there were credible reports from survivors that the Serbs had ordered civilians into Korisa. "We believe it was being used as a military camp and command post with military vehicles and artillery present," he said. "We do not yet know the reason why civilians were at this location at the time of the attack. But it increasingly appears likely that the civilians were used as human shields.

"We're aware of continued reports that according to survivors the civilians were ordered by Serb police to return to the village from the hills where they'd been hiding for several weeks.

"On their return they were not permitted to live in their homes. Instead they were herded into concentrated areas within the village and held there until the Nato attack took place."

Nato's secretary-general, Javier Solana, also said there was evidence that refugees had been sent to the town after being turned back by Serb guards at the Albanian border. "Korisa was a command post, there's no doubt about that - a military place... Suddenly refugees appeared. One can think that the refugees have been used not only militarily but also politically," he said.

Western reporters transported to the site saw no sign of Korisa being used as an army base.

Refugees reaching Macedonia and Albania yesterday also brought fresh reports of Albanian civilians in Kosovo being forced to give blood for Serb troops and being forced to dig trenches for troops in the province and then sleep in them.

Nato has been unusually aggressive in countering criticism of the air strike on Korisa. The bullish reaction marks a break from the way the alliance handled earlier public outcries over the mistaken attacks on a train near Leskovac, southern Serbia, killing 30, the bombing of a refugee column in Kosovo, killing at least 64 civilians and the bombing of the Chinese embassy, which killed three reporters. On those occasions Nato appeared defensive and at times confused over how to explain the "collateral damage" its jets had inflicted on innocent civilians.

But this time round Nato appears less apologetic, partly because "refugee fatigue" among the Western public is also matched in the "atrocity fatigue", but also because the alliance believes it has the evidence it needs that Serbs are helping to engineer these disasters in an attempt to derail the West's military campaign.

And whereas previous "collateral" disasters have usually been followed by a noticeable pause, or slow down, in the air campaign, this time the alliance has carried on bombing as usual, even increasing the number of strikes.

In spite of the Korisa disaster the alliance continued hammering Yugoslav positions in exactly the same area on Saturday and last night. Yugoslavia's official Tanjug news agency said Kosovo endured a day of record bombing on Saturday, with 90 missiles landing in the province.

The Pentagon reinforced the message and said yesterday: "This accident at Korisa did not shake Nato's resolve in any way. The air campaign will continue, with increasing force, particularly against Serb ground forces and police units in Kosovo."