War in the Balkans: The Damage - Nato `sorry' for getting facts wrong

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The Independent Online
ONE OF three bombs aimed at the main telephone exchange in Pristina hit a residential area, Nato admitted yesterday. It had previously denied that its bombers were responsible for damage in the city centre.

Air Commodore David Wilby, the alliance military spokesman, said that the exchange was a "critical target" because it was being used for communications between Serbian forces in Kosovo and Belgrade. Nato regretted any loss of civilian life, he said.

"One bomb appeared to be seduced off the target at the final stages. Close inspection of imagery indicates that it landed some 200 to 300m away in what seems to be a small residential area," he said.

Extensive damage to the Kosovo capital was revealed to reporters on Wednesday night, on a visit organised by the Serb authorities. In a silent and deserted city centre they saw that - as well as the exchange - the post office, the largest bank and a row of civilian homes had been hit. At least 10 civilians were said to have been killed in attacks the previous night.

Serb minders and local people interviewed said that all the wreckage had been caused by alliance bombs, but this was flatly denied by Nato at the time. Air Commodore Wilby suggested that some of the damage had been caused by Serb forces for propaganda purposes.

"I can absolutely assure you that while Nato has attacked military targets around Pristina, and one very carefully targeted headquarters... Nato has certainly not caused the reported widespread and random damage which we believe has been orchestrated by Serbian forces," he said on Thursday.

Yesterday's admission came as Serbian state television reported that a Nato air attack on a car factory in the central Serbian town of Kragujevac on Thursday night had left 124 people injured, 24 of them seriously. It has been claimed that the plant was also used for arms and ammunition production.

For 12 days of the campaign Nato spokesmen stated with pride that there had been virtually no civilian casualties, using this as an indication of the accuracy of its attacks. If any "collateral damage" had been caused, Slobodan Milosevic's propaganda machine would have made the most of it, they said. Then on Tuesday, Air Commodore Wilby had to apologise for a bomb going astray during a raid on Aleksinac the previous night, killing five civilians and wounding another.

At yesterday's Nato briefing, Air Commodore Wilby said that after some success on Thursday morning, "the weather has turned against us", affecting operations. He also said that Serb forces appeared to be building up in the north of Kosovo.

In London, General Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff, said that 10 RAF Harriers had hit two groups of vehicles on Thursday. The first attack was on a military vehicle compound in southern Kosovo and the second was against military trucks in the west. Both were successful, he said.