War in Europe: Blasted Serb HQs burn just yards from baby hospital

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YOU COULD hear the cruise missiles swishing through the air of old Belgrade early yesterday morning, but no one was surprised at the targets. Staff at the Yugoslav and Serbian ministries of interior had emptied their buildings of files and personnel before the war began; all last week, whenever I was driving down Kneza Milos Street, my driver would speed up when he passed the ugly, eight-storey piles, in case the missiles arrived in daylight. So, Nato's strike at the heart of the Serbian capital hit only the shells of buildings.

They blazed for hours, beacons of light in the very centre of Belgrade, the headquarters - nominally at least - of the Serb forces in Kosovo, struck by missiles fired from Nato warships 300 miles away in the Adriatic. Psychologically, they showed Belgrade citizens how vulnerable is their city and gave Nato's commanders reason to boast at their morning press briefings that another blow had been struck at Serb military forces. But the infrastructure of both ministries had long been moved outside the city. In military terms, the effect of the missiles was nil.

Across the road, however, there was panic in the gynaecology department of the Serbian medical centre as nurses took babies and their mothers to basements, where many had to sleep on stretchers in the corridors. Doctors at the clinic told me last week they had read on the CNN website that the interior ministry was to be a target, and that they feared for the lives of their patients. Vlajko Stoijcovic, the federal interior minister, watched the flames pouring from the windows of the devastated buildings and compared the bombing to Hitler's attack on Belgrade almost exactly 58 years ago, on 6 April 1941.

In a city with no free press and with a state television service that has not shown a single frame of videotape of the Kosovo Albanian refugee catastrophe on the borders - which bears far greater similarity to the atrocities of Nazi Germany - the bombing infuriated Serbs in Belgrade. Coming only hours after Nato's missile attack on the old road bridge in Novi Sad - which cut off electricity to part of the city and blocked navigation on the Danube between Hungary and the Black Sea - they fear that the capital's own bridges are now in danger of destruction.

But if the eight cruise missiles which yesterday exploded in the interior ministry were meant to strike a blow for the Kosovo Albanians, the attack was a lamentable failure. The buildings were already abandoned - the interior ministry police here can, after all, also read CNN's website. So, the missiles will not prevent further paramilitary assaults on the Kosovo Albanians. Nato, of course, can say it did not hit the hospital. But it was prepared to take the risk.