War in the Balkans: Alliance blunder - Nato cluster bombs leave trail of death

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The Independent Online
THE ELDERLY woman lay on her back in the street, her eyes sightless, her face turning the colour of wax. There was no mark on her, apart from the small bloody hole in the centre of her forehead caused by a Nato cluster bomb which did extensive damage to several streets near the vegetable market in the southern town of Nis.

A second cluster bomb exploded 50 yards from a medical centre a mile away. In both places unexploded canisters from the bomb, carrying printed inscriptions in English, lay among the wreckage of cars and broken glass.

Beside the dead woman's body was a bag of carrots she had just bought at the market. Ten feet away lay, the body of an old man probably in his Seventies. He had been peppered with shrapnel while trying to sell eggs and spring onions from a stall made from a cardboard box. Near by was a third body, a young man surrounded by pools of blood.

He died on the doorstep of a house belonging to 50-year old Smilja Yuric, who survived because she was inside her front room. "It went blat-blat- blat," she told me imitating the distinctive sound of the cluster bomb's multiple explosions which I last heard in Chechnya when they were dropped on the civilians of Grozny. "I didn't know where I was," said Ms Yuric. "I was completely stunned."

About a mile away, another cluster bomb had detonated amid civilian housing. Again, the splatter marks of shrapnel riddled the houses and cars, many of them burnt out. Three more people including an 85-year- old man died here. Amid the silent devastation a woman wept beside her wrecked home.

Serb authorities said seven civilians died in two attacks and a further six in a third, with more than 30 injured.

The bomb strikes on Nis appear to be another Nato blunder as the alliance continues to pile the pressure on President Slobodan Milosevic amid what may be the start of a diplomatic endgame over Kosovo. In Belgrade, the Yugoslav leader appears to be preparing for what could be the most dangerous moment for him - the day that the bombing stops.

The RTS state television service has broadcast a statement by the Yugoslav Left Party (JUL) led by the President's fanatically determined wife, Mira Markovic, promising a crackdown on "traitors" in Yugoslav society.

The statement comes amid predictions of serious unrest if Mr Milosevic is forced to accept armed Nato troops in Kosovo as part of a United Nations-approved peace deal.

But there is a prospect of complex wrangling between the United States and Russia over the wording of a UN Security Council resolution which may soon be presented to Mr Milosevic on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

Serb government officials take some comfort that the UN will now be at the heart of settlement negotiations, a fact they can present to their people as a positive result of Serbia's defiance. But the central issue which will determine President Milosevic's chances of survival remains the same: the nature and composition of the "civil and security presence" that Russia has now endorsed for Kosovo.

Some Serb officials have moved away from their repeated insistence that such a presence should consist only of unarmed observers and are now suggesting armed troops of such "non-aggressor" Nato countries as Greece and Canada would be acceptable alongside a large Russian contingent.

That limited concession, clearly still unacceptable to Nato, has provoked angry denials from the radical nationalist wing of the government led by the hard-liner Vojislav Seselj. He told a Belgrade press conference: "Bill Clinton is very wrong if he thinks Slobodan Milosevic is getting nearer to Nato's position."

The presence of US and British troops as part of a Kosovo force is seen here as a bitter pill which President Milosevic may in the end be willing to swallow if he can find a way to restrain the combative instincts of some of his army generals and a way to explain the results of this war to his own people.

The media attack on "traitors" is already a clear sign that President Milosevic is girding himself to face the inevitable recriminations that will follow any peace agreement of the kind currently being discussed.

But if Mr Milosevic faces the problem of explaining to his population what has been gained by almost seven weeks of Nato bombardment, the deaths of hundreds of people and the destruction of much of the country's economic capacity, then Nato will also have some explaining to do. In particular, why it dropped two cluster bombs, designed to kill large numbers of enemy infantry, on civilian districts in this southern Serbian city which is now mourning its losses.

Julian Manyon, special correspondent for ITN in Yugoslavia, has been in Belgrade since the start of the bombing on 24 March