War in the Balkans: Two attacks were made on convoy

Refugee Attack
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THE BRIEFING by Brigadier General Dan Leaf cleared up some aspects of Wednesday's attack on the refugee convoy but left others unclear, some perhaps because they cannot be established without ground access, others for strategic or organisational reasons.

He confirmed Pentagon statements that there were two attacks: the first on a three-vehicle military convoy north-west of Djakovica; the second, 10 minutes later, on a long convoy south-east of Djakovica. Nine bombs were dropped; two in the first attack, seven - it may be concluded - in the second.

The first attack involved one aircraft, an F-16 coded Bear-31. It was the voice of this pilot heard recounting his attack on a tape played to reporters on Thursday. The unidentified pilot described tracking an identifiably military vehicle as it set buildings on fire. He dropped the bombs as it linked up with two other military vehicles. The attack was near a "C-shaped" building which General Leaf said was identical to a building in film broadcast by Serb television. One bomb did not hit the target and may have caused civilian casualties.

The second attack was co-ordinated by the first aircraft but executed by at least two others and also involved communication and reconnaissance planes. It took place only after "extensive discussion". The decision was taken on the basis of criteria including the fact that the convoy appeared to be behaving like a military one. But no final decision was taken until the communications aircraft messaged that it had been identified as a "VJ" - ie Yugoslav army - convoy.

The first bomb missed the "target vehicle"; the others hit targets. Stressing that the tapes had been extensively played and analysed by the pilots afterwards, General Leaf said: "These could have been tractor-trailer type vehicles but to the naked eye they appeared to be military vehicles", though he noted that visual identification was only one element.

It was only at that stage that an intelligence analyst's report, apparently from the planes' Aviano base, soweddoubt, noting that the convoy was "unusually long". The Bear-31 pilot asked the reconnaissance plane to make an identification with its special binoculars. Bear-31 "overheard the discussion" on the plane.

General General Leaf did not divulge its contents and immediately called for all flights to be suspended. It appeared the convoy was "mixed" - military and refugee vehicles. Asked to confirm if a British Harrier had warned that the convoy was at least in part civilian, General Leaf said a warning had come "at the same time" as that from Aviano, but the F-16 pilot had "no communications with the aircraft in question". As to the aftermath, "we cannot determine the exact status of the vehicles or the casualties," General Leaf said.

Three points can be extrapolated from the information provided by the general. First, the Pentagon was right and wrong when it separated the attacks. The tape related only to the first attack, in which an identifiably military convoy was bombed by Bear-31. But it was this pilot who ordered the attack suspended when he had doubts about the military nature of the second, exceptionally long, convoy. In that respect, the unhappiness of the pilot and his squadron - to which the Pentagon alluded when it separated the two attacks - was justified. The Nato spokesman was not entirely wrong to have played the tape, however, because the plane was involved in both attacks.

Second, the Serbian media version conflated the attacks, showing film of damage from the "legitimate" attack and carnage from the convoy bombing as though the location was one and the same.

Third, while Nato concedes bombs may have killed refugees in the second convoy, it is still not accepting Serbian claims that its planes were responsible for the deaths of all, or indeed any, of the refugees.