War in Europe: Nato splits over raid on Kosovo refugee convoy

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The Independent Online
AFTER FOUR weeks of public unity, simmering dissent between Nato allies broke into the open yesterday as the Pentagon contradicted alliance leaders in Brussels. The split came over the handling of the alleged Nato air strike on a refugee convoy on Wednesday, in which 74 Albanian Kosovars were killed.

A Pentagon spokesman said yesterday that the US F-16 pilot, whose taped account of his attack on a military convoy had been played to reporters in Brussels, had nothing to do with the bombing of the refugees.

There were two incidents, Captain Steve Pietropaoli said, and the one recounted by the unidentified pilot was "quite separate". It had taken place north, not south, of the Djakovica-Prizren road in Kosovo, and had targeted (and hit) only military vehicles.

Capt Pietropaoli did not dispute that a Nato plane probably did hit a refugee convoy, saying carefully: "I believe that is what Nato believes to be the case."

Questioned on Friday about the discrepancy, the Nato official who played the tape, General Giuseppe Marani, suggested first that the lead vehicle in the convoy - identified by the pilot as a military truck - could have contained civilians, and then that it could have been a tractor.

The Pentagon's comments appeared to reflect the pilot's, and his squadron's, unhappiness about being associated with a fatal mis-strike. "For his peace of mind ... you don't want to have that sort of thing hanging there. It is terribly important to those pilots to clear up the issue," Capt Pietropaoli said.

Asked about the debris bearing serial numbers collected at the scene by the Independent's correspondent, Robert Fisk, and whether Nato could match a particular piece of ordnance to a specific mission, Gen Marani said: "We can narrow it down at least to which batch. But as to the relevancy of knowing which batch, debris can be carried around."

Last night, Nato repeated that it could not comment further while it was investigating the incident. But a spokesman did confirmed the tape had been broadcast by Nato on the understanding that it was of a pilot who had bombed a civilian target.

"The problem appears to be confusion between more than one incident," he said. "It was worsened by a tape that was played that seems now to have not had anything to do with the errant strike." As to how that could have happened, the spokesman said: "I couldn't tell you where the error entered into the chain of events."

NatoSupreme Commander General Wesley Clark said the investigation could take weeks, and even then, "I don't know we'll ever have the full facts."

The breach over the convoy incident came as Nato officials took custody of their first prisoner of war, a Yugoslav army lieutenant captured by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The prisoner, aged about 20, whom the Pentagon declined to name, was said to have been captured during fighting between up to 400 Yugoslav soldiers and a 100-strong KLA unit near Junik.

Contrasting his treatment with that of the three US servicemen captured three weeks ago on the Macedonia-Kosovo border, Nato and the Pentagon stressed that his treatment would comply strictly with the Geneva Convention. A KLA spokesman said the rebels had three more prisoners - two Serbs and a Russian mercenary.

Meanwhile, French President Jacques Chirac said he wants to invite leaders of Yugoslavia's seven neighbours to next week's Nato summit.