War In The Balkans: The Campaign - Central Belgrade struck by missiles

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NATO TOOK its air war to the centre of Belgrade early this morning, turning two government buildings into infernos with cruise missile strikes.

The alliance took the drastic step of taking war right to the middle of a European capital city after growing unhappiness about the flagging strategy of trying to bomb the country into submission.

At around one in the morning local time, heavy blasts shook the centre of Belgrade, and flames rose high into the sky. The Serb and Yugoslav Interior Ministries were both believed to have been hit in strikes that go very close to the centre of power in the country. "We can confirm that targets are being hit in downtown Belgrade," said a spokesman for the US Department of Defense minutes later.

Shortly afterwards, film of the buildings in flames were shown on Serbian television.

Recriminations and accusations have been growing within senior Nato ranks over the alliance's policy and its apparent failure to inflict significant damage on the Serbian war machine or halt the tide of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Nato decided earlier last week to extend its campaign against political and leadership targets, as well as Yugoslav military units in Kosovo.

At briefings yesterday, allied military chiefs publicly insisted that the campaign of air strikes would continue. Video footage was shown of bridges, barracks and other targets being hit by bombs and missiles. But at the same time they were forced to admit that bad weather had once again prevented most of the planned attacks from taking place.

Nato said that in planning attacks on Belgrade, it had taken care to avoid civilian casualties. A spokesman, Jamie Shea, said the alliance would not be using President Slobodan Milosevic's methods and was determined to avoid collateral damage.

Criticism of the allied efforts was more vocal in Brussels and Washington than in London. There were allegations that intelligence assessments that air strikes alone would not stop a Serb offensive against Kosovars were ignored.

Adding to the controversy, a Kosovo Liberation Army commander, Shkem Dragobia, yesterday accused Nato of betrayal, saying the Kosovars had been asked not to mobilise and arm themselves, on the understanding that Western powers would protect them.

This they had failed to do, said Mr Dragobia, and if Nato continued to refuse to commit ground forces, the KLA should be provided with armour and heavy artillery.

A Nato spokesman, Air Commodore David Wilby, said the allies were in for a long haul. "This will not be a short campaign," he added.

However, he stressed that the attacks were effective and Serbian forces were suffering from serious fuel shortages caused by the bombing. The dwindling stocks were being further depleted by their "cat and mouse" tactic of regularly moving armour around to avoid being hit. Shortage of fuel had immobilised an entire Yugoslav army battle group near the town of Djakovica in southern Kosovo.

Fuel and bread shortages were also hitting ordinary Yugoslavs outside Kosovo, and there was a military call-up of men aged between 16 and 60, some of whose passports were being confiscated to prevent them leaving the country, Nato claimed. Overnight, Nato aircraft had encountered light missile activity and the anti-aircraft radar threat had lessened. Air Commodore Wilby said cloudy weather in and around Kosovo had again hampered Nato air operations, but a "full spectrum" of targets had been attacked. US B-1 bombers had gone into action for the first time, "increasing the tempo and effectiveness of our campaign", he said.

Attacks had focused on lines of communication such as bridges and on the Yugoslav forces' staging areas and headquarters facilities.

The B-1 is part of a steady build up of the Nato arsenal. Eight RAF Tornados are now on stand-by at their base in Germany and an extra four Harriers sent to Italy are also fully operational.

The submarine HMS Splendid, believed to be in the Adriatic, is expected to be joined by a number of other naval vessels. And the US is expected to deploy the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and its battle group.