War in Europe: Bombing takes toll on Serb forces

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The Independent Online
The week of the heaviest attacks of Operation Allied Force so far also yielded evidence that the air campaign is finally getting to grips with Yugoslav ground forces in Kosovo.

Sustained good weather over the past few days - and, probably, a desire to avoid any repetition of the disastrous bombing of the Chinese embassy - has caused a swing from pounding strategic targets in Belgrade and other cities to a concentration on military units in Kosovo. Even President Slobodan Milosevic, who previously listed only civilian casualties, talked of Serbian soldiers and special police being killed. Until last week the Serbs had given publicity only to the destruction of strategic targets such as bridges and factories, making it easy to gain an unbalanced picture of the damage being done.

Nato commanders have constantly shied from giving running totals of the tanks, artillery pieces and armoured personnel carriers being destroyed, with General Sir Charles Guthrie, the Chief of the Defence Staff, frequently warning against an "arithmetic" approach to success and failure. But there is a sense of confidence that the daily attacks now being reported on such "assets" are now having a serious effect on the 40,000 troops and 300 tanks that were in place at the beginning of the campaign.

With the long-awaited US Apache attack helicopters finally reported to be ready for action, and their support troops engaging in their first live-firing exercise, this can now be expected to increase.

More than 500 attacks a day are expected this week, as fresh pilots and aircraft are thrown into the assault to break out of a threatening stalemate. Allied planes have now flown a total of more than 20,000 sorties since the campaign began in March. The pilots are also now attacking in the teeth of heavy anti-aircraft fire, suggesting that the campaign is moving into a critical phase. Sixteen missiles were fired at them on one day last week.

On a strategic level, General Guthrie gave a detailed progress report showing how the air war has concentrated on cutting off the forces in Kosovo. Planes have attacked 48 of 145 military communications sites, which include 95 per cent of the 19 key sites between Belgrade and the southern area of Yugoslavia. Both railway lines serving Kosovo have been cut, with 35 road and rail bridges damaged or destroyed across the country.

But other figures appear less impressive for a campaign that has passed its 50th day. Of 19 military airfields attacked, only nine have been damaged. Just 20 per cent of army barracks have been damaged, and a fifth of major ammunition stores. Two of the eight roads into Kosovo have been cut, and one damaged.

"Our intelligence shows that the damage we are inflicting increases and will continue to do so," said General Guthrie. "Equally, there is evidence that the relative activity of Serb military and paramilitary forces has slowed, and they are now less able to make proper use of those assets they have."

Much of the increased allied activity followed the arrival of 300 extra warplanes requested last month by General Wesley Clark, Nato's supreme commander. Among them are two squadrons of A-10 "Warthog" tank-busting aircraft.