War In The Balkans: `The skyline was rimmed with black smoke'

Air Strikes
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IT SOUNDED as if someone in the sky were tearing apart a silk curtain. The rumble of bombs, changing the air pressure in my bedroom, sent my own net curtains billowing and banged the window against my head when I tried to push it open.

The raid must have lasted three or four minutes. The jets passed right over the crumbling, flaking tenements outside my room. And there, silhouetted over the rooftops, against the pre-dawn sky, was a great orange glow, flickering upwards and then resolving itself into a false, northern sunrise. When I looked at my watch this Easter Day morning in Belgrade, it read 4.30.

With the first paleness of the real dawn, I could make out a colossal, towering funnel of smoke - maybe a mile high - above Novy Beograd, the ugly suburb north of the Sava river, with its dingy skyscrapers and broad, weedy boulevards. By the time I drove across the Gazela Bridge, the whole skyline of Belgrade was rimmed with black smoke. The two red-and-white banded chimneys of the electrical power station still stood, but the plant was burning.

Across Belgrade, you could smell the fires, even inside the magnificent domed cathedral below Kalmegdan Park, where the Orthodox were celebrating Palm Sunday.

On Saturday morning, it had been the much-unloved Yugoslav and Serbian interior ministries that were ablaze. Tongues of flame swept up from the eight-storey buildings on Kneza Milosa after eight cruise missiles - seven launched by the Americans, one by the Royal Navy - had been fired at them from the Adriatic 300 miles to the west.

The interior minister compared the attack to Hitler's bombing of Belgrade on 6 April, 1941. Indeed, anniversaries seem to dominate the life of Belgrade just now. Hitler bombed 58 years ago. Nato was founded 50 years ago. Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the Serbian constitution that annulled Kosovo's autonomy.

And that wasn't all of Nato's handiwork over the weekend. Twice it struck the river bridges over the Danube at Novy Sad, cutting off much of the water supply to the city and all of Yugoslavia's telephone lines to Western Europe, as well as navigation between Hungary and the Black Sea.

Three men were wounded in the Novy Sad bombings and five workers hurt at the power station yesterday morning.

A major military route that carried "vital logistic supplies and troops" for the Serbs was how Nato justified the destruction of the first Novy Sad bridge - a description that might just as well be used about any road in Serbia. There was no doubt about the paramilitary target south of Belgrade - a police academy - although the oil refinery bombed yesterday morning at Kraljevo and the Belgrade power station hardly fell into that category.

The people of Belgrade have long feared that Nato would spread its targets Iraq-style - from barracks and anti-aircraft defences to bridges, roads and railways - once its air offensive failed to break Serbia.

Now it seems their fears are being realised. They had hoped that the Pope's proposal to honour another anniversary, almost 2,000 years ago, by calling an 11-day ceasefire might have brought a suspension of the bombardment. The Easter appeal was rejected.