WAR IN THE BALKANS: TENSION IN NATO: Military chiefs block release of convoy film

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NATO'S MILITARY commanders are blocking internal calls for the release of videotape of the bombing raid which killed up to 75 ethnic Albanian refugees, diplomatic sources said yesterday, amid signs of new tension over the handling of the episode.

A diplomat said Jamie Shea, the alliance's chief spokesman, wanted the tape - recorded by a camera on the F-16 attack aircraft - placed in the public domain but had failed to win the agreement of military chiefs investigating the episode.

Another source pinned the blame for the delay on its release on the US, arguing that its air force needed to agree to release the material. The Pentagon is sensitive about the attack because its pilot and air crew were responsible.

The dispute came amid continuing confusion as to which column the Nato plane attacked on Wednesday and where the attack was. On Thursday, Nato admitted it attacked a column that it took to be a military convoy before hitting another three vehicles in a nearby compound. It is believed these attacks were north of the Kosovo town of Djakovica, near the village of Meja. Nato also said it attacked a military convoy on a bridge near the village of Zrze, south of Djakovica. At a Nato briefing in Brussels, Mr Shea said Nato only accepted blame for one incident, adding that admission of one mistake did mean every incident should "be laid at Nato's feet." He also dismissed new claims by Belgrade that in a separate incident Nato had struck a refugee centre in the Serbian town of Paracin overnight. But Nato is finding it difficult to explain the pictures on Serb television - apparently taken near Zrze - of mangled bodies and farm machinery.

Against this backdrop, the outcome of the battle over whether or not to release the video footage of the attack could prove crucial. Although the images could be damaging to public opinion, Nato's failure to be seen to come clean could also dent its credibility.

Nato diplomats said there was no cover-up by Mr Shea: "He wants its release as much as the media does. If they [Nato] had wanted to hide the existence of the tape, they would not have allowed it to be known that the pilot dispatched a laser-guided bomb".

The formal investigation into the bombing of the column- in which the Serbs claim at least 75 civilians died - is being carried out at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, which is resisting release of the video.

"It's a military decision - it's their decision what they do with it", said a source.

"They want to be careful that they don't give out any information that turns out not to be true before the investigation is completed and they want a complete and thorough investigation."