War in the Balkans: Refugee Tragedy: A pilot saw blazing villages, then a convoy. Seconds later, he fired

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EIGHTY-YEAR-OLD Dibran Asmani had been on the road for three days in Kosovo, edging ever closer to the Albanian border he hoped would offer safety.

Instead, early on Wednesday afternoon, the world exploded around him and Mr Asmani's family disappeared before his eyes. "Suddenly, there was a big blast, and I started running," said Mr Asmani, leaning on his walking stick.

"All I could think was, my God, Nato is bombing us. I ran through the field like a mouse. I'm ashamed, but I'm too old to lie about it."

More than 36 hours after one or more convoys of Kosovan refugees was hit by bombs from Nato planes, details are slowly emerging about exactly what happened between 1pm and 3pm on a road near Djakovica in south-west Kosovo.

Perhaps because of a lack of facts, or because there is mileage to be made peddling disinformation, at least two versions of what happened has emerged.

What is without doubt is that Nato planes bombed the very refugees they were trying to help - people like Mr Asmani. Nato called it a tragic accident.

The tragedy began to unfold just after midday on Wednesday when an attack team of American F-16 strike aircraft armed with laser-guided bombs, took off from their base in at Aviano, in northern Italy.

Their mission was to fly over south-west Kosovo, specifically over towns where Serb MUP (interior ministry) police - those responsible for the past month's ethnic cleansing - had been spotted, and over areas known to be "strategic supply routes" for the Yugoslav military machine.

Flying at 15,000ft, out of reach of anti-aircraft artillery and most hand-held surface-to-air missiles, the pilot in the lead aircraft was passing over open country between the village of Decani and the town of Djakovica. From the cockpit of the single-seat aircraft he saw the ground beneath dotted with villages that had been set on fire. Three, four, he counted, all recently set alight and still burning and all, he presumed, the work of the MUP.

Then, passing over a dirt road that linked the two settlements, he saw movement on the ground. Looking closer he saw what he thought was a 60-vehicle convoy of vehicles. At the front of the convoy were three green trucks.

"[I saw] three uniformly shaped dark green vehicles, look like deuce- and-a-half (two and-a-half-ton) troop-carrying vehicles," the pilot said, on a tape played to reporters yesterday by Nato.

"They come to a stop at the next house down the road. I am convinced now that that's [army and police] forces working their way down toward Djakovica."

Satisfied that he had identified the same forces who had been setting fire to the villages, the pilot decided to mount an attack.

"I go in, put my system on the lead vehicle and execute a laser-guided bomb attack on that vehicle destroying the lead vehicle," he said.

Realising he was running low on fuel, the pilot and his wingman - the second pilot in the flight, who was marking the target with a laser for the bomber - pulled away.

He passed on the map coordinates of the target to the next "flight", or squad, of aircraft. In turn, this next flight spotted a further three vehicles in a compound beside the dirt track. Using the same laser-guided weapons, this team then moved in to destroy these targets, dropping three bombs.

Later in the afternoon another team of F-16 bombers attacked a separate military convoy. These were spotted on a road bridge east of Djakovica. There was no information about civilian casualties.

This is Nato's account of events. But Belgrade's version of events is quite different.

The Serbs say there was no military convoy in the area around Djakovica on Wednesday afternoon. Instead, what Nato took to be military targets were two convoys of refugees, separated by around 15 miles.

And they were not heading towards Albania, but were travelling back into Kosovo from the border crossings at Cafta Prusit and Vrbnica. The Serbs claim the first convoy to be hit was a procession of 1,000 people and 100 vehicles - tractors and private cars - struck by three bombs as it passed the village of Maja, close to Djakovica. They say 64 people were killed and 20 wounded.

Soon afterwards, they say, Nato aircraft struck a second convoy, this one a line of 600 people travelling on the same road but in the village of Zrze, 15 miles to the east. While this may have been the second of Nato's targets, Belgrade insists there were no military vehicles, just refugees' tractors and trailers. They said 44 people were killed at Zrze and dozens injured.

"[This was] a horrendous massacre" claimed the Serbian President, Milan Milutinovic. "This cannot be explained as an error when the columns of refugees were bombed four times - this was done deliberately.

"It was a massacre of Albanian refugees who were returning to their homes in the middle of the day."

What can we know for sure? We know that innocent refugees were killed on Wednesday by bombs dropped from Nato planes.

We know that they were desperate, exhausted people who had probably been on the move for weeks, their only possessions the little they could carry as they fled from their homes.

We can presume that they were not deliberately targeted by Nato - the political fallout from this "accident" will be bad enough.

We must question Pentagon and Nato suggestions that Yugoslav MiG fighters attacked the columns. Experts point out that Nato would have spotted and shot down any Serb planes.

In any case, the refugees themselves would not have been able to identify whether the planes were Serb or Nato.

They simply talk of being attacked from the air, of the ground exploding in front and around and behind them, and of shattered bodies and twisted machinery.

They talk of a horror that has become ingrained on their memories.