War in the Balkans: Air Strikes - RAF hits Serb ground troops

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RAF HARRIERS launched their first attack against Serb ground troops in Kosovo yesterday as Nato unleashed the most intense series of raids in its two-week campaign.

After two frustrating days of daylight patrols over Kosovo when they failed to find any targets, the Harrier GR7s dropped cluster bombs on mobile units of the Yugoslav army.

Pilots returning to their base at Gioia del Colle in southern Italy expressed confidence that they destroyed their targets, believed to include tanks and other armoured vehicles.

Group Captain Ian Travers Smith, spokesman at the base, said: "I think today they thought they had got the results they deserved, and so did I."

The attack was part of the increased effort against army and special police units in Kosovo responsible for atrocities and "ethnic cleansing".

It followed Nato's most intense night of bombing, when four waves of aircraft were launched against military targets throughout Yugoslavia as allied forces took advantage of clear weather.

The assault included a successful operation by five of the Harriers and six Tornado GR1 bombers flying from Germany against a fuel depot and a ground-to-air missile support site near Pristina.

Only one of the Harriers failed to identify its target and returned without dropping its bombs.

The success for the Harriers followed eight days of missions being aborted because of bad weather or technical failures.

It has considerably raised morale at the base. Wing Commander Graham Wright, in overall command of the RAF detachment in southern Italy, said: "People were over the moon, because we had done something productive."

The ground attacks used BL-755 cluster bombs, a well-established weapon with a high "kill" probability against a range or armoured or "soft" targets such as trucks.

They are typically launched from low altitudes of 500ft to 1,000ft.

Each bomb weighs 600lb and after release launches 147 armour-piercing bomblets which can cover an elliptical area the size of a football field.

The bomblet is about 6in long when fired and deploys a nose probe for detonation and a fan-like parachute behind to slow its rate of fall and make sure that it hits the target at the right angle.

On impact the casing also shatters, to send anti-personnel fragments flying. One bomblet has enough explosive power to knock out a tank.

"The RAF have had versions of this weapon since the 1970s, but they are still wicked little bastards. I'm sure this will have shaken the Serbs up," said Wing Commander Ken Petrie, a defence analyst.

"If you get a mixture of soft- skinned vehicles and tanks within its footprint area, then this weapon can do a hell of a lot of damage."

A Ministry of Defence briefing in London was shown video footage of three attacks by RAF aircraft carried out on Monday night against a fuel dump near Pristina. All the bombs were seen to hit their targets.

It was also explained how the Tornados, supported by three VC-10 tanker aircraft, flew from RAF Bruggen in Germany and refuelled over the Mediterranean and the Adriatic before going to their target. The bombers refuelled again before all the aircraft returned in formation to Germany. All Nato aircraft returned safely from missions on Monday.

George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence, pledged that the attacks would carry on until Nato had secured its aims.

"We are systematically cutting the sinews of Milosevic's war machine," he said. "The outcome is not in doubt. We shall continue with our attacks as long as necessary to ensure that Milosevic is defeated in this vile ethnic war."