War in The Balkans: Unmoved by tragedy, Nato sends its regrets

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IT WAS so utterly predictable. Up to 60 civilians are torn apart in a Nato bombing attack on Saturday and President Slobodan Milosevic releases three captured American soldiers. And which event - the tragedy or the melodrama - do we regard as more important? The freeing of three Americans, of course. Even yesterday's Nato briefing spent more time discussing the implications of their release than the bus massacre. "Any loss of innocent life is regretted," German Colonel Konrad Freytag announced. Note the passive tense "it is regretted". "We did not bomb the bus," the colonel announced, adding that the bridge was "a military target". "We bombed the bridge ... We did not bomb the bus and we did not target the bus." So that's all right then.

How much longer will Nato get away with these dreadful attacks? Aleksinac, Cuprija, the train massacre at Grdelica, the assault on the civilian centre of Pristina, the bombs dropped near Belgrade university, the slaughter of Albanian refugees near Djakovica, the mass killings in the air raid at Surdulica and now the bus blown apart on the Lujane bridge ... The Serbs are making good headway with their propaganda: that Nato is deliberately trying to kill innocent Serbs. And what do we get from Colonel Freytag? "It is regretted."

Nato's sorrow, we are supposed to believe, is reserved for the continuing exodus of Albanian refugees from Kosovo, for the three-quarters of a million Kosovo Albanian refugees hounded from their homes, executed, raped, dispossessed. I would like to believe that Nato feels this sense of outrage as strongly as it claims. But I don't - and after five weeks in Yugoslavia, here's why.

If I am walking down a street in London or Dublin or any other European city and I see a man molesting a woman or trying to kill an innocent civilian, I hope I would, like most Independent readers no doubt, cross the road and try - whatever the cost - to save the life of the innocent person. But that has not been Nato's reaction to the plight of the Kosovo Albanians.

What Nato has done - faced with the atrocities of Kosovo - has been to stay on the other side of the road, to make a note of the criminal's address, and to throw stones through the window of his home later that night. Nato sometimes damages the house, sometimes destroys it. Quite often, in the dark, it throws stones through the windows of the wrong house and hurts or kills those who are every bit as innocent as the original victim. In which case Nato says that "it is regretted".

Not a single Nato life has been lost in five weeks of war in the Balkans - because we do not regard the catastrophe of the Kosovo Albanians as worth a single Nato life. It is as simple as that. We do not want a ground war and there will not be a ground war (unless the Kosovo Liberation Army are obliging enough to die for us). Nothing wrong with that, perhaps. But we do not say so. Instead, we are told why we must go on bombing day after day, week after week, in Nato briefings that are becoming parodies of themselves.

Even the word Nato is becoming a lie. The alliance is bombarding Yugoslavia, we are told. Is it? In the past five weeks in Serbia, I haven't seen any Portuguese planes dropping bombs on the Serbs. I haven't seen any Spanish jets rocketing Belgrade. Nor a single French jet. Nor Norwegian. Nor Greek. Nor Italian. A handful of British Harriers and Canadian planes, perhaps. But the rest are American. For in terms of a military offensive, this is essentially an American attack on Yugoslavia, using American aircraft dropping American bombs.

So what could have been more important yesterday - amid the continuing war crimes in Kosovo - than the release of three American soldiers?

Now it happens that I have seen Jesse Jackson in action before. Last time, he was arranging the release of a US pilot captured by the Syrians in 1983. Mr Jackson turned up in Damascus talking about "the cycle of pain", met with President Assad, said a few prayers and left with the man whose hi-tech jet had been shot down over Lebanon by a Second World War anti-aircraft gun.

Yesterday, after meeting with President Milosevic, Mr Jackson talked about "the cycle of pain", said a few prayers and left with the three American soldiers captured on the Serbian-Macedonian border. Unlike Mr Assad, however, Mr Milosevic handed Mr Jackson a letter for the American president - a letter which Mr Clinton will not like to read. For negotiating with Mr Milosevic, sitting down with the man now bestialised as the Hitler of Belgrade - when will we ever learn to stop play-acting the Second World War? - is now impossible for the Americans. He is too terrible, his regime too bloodstained (aka British defence secretary George Robertson), his word so unreliable for anyone to trust him to talk peace. Or so we are led to believe.

But what is he offering? An "international force" in Kosovo, I suspect, under UN mandate but with no Nato participation and with - at most - side-arms for personal protection. It will be refused (as Mr Milosevic will expect it to be refused) but it will probably form the basis of peace, once Nato admits that there will be no ground war. The truth, unfortunately for Nato, is that - barring coups d'etat or a Western-provoked uprising in Montenegro or mass desertions from the Yugoslav army - the Serbs look set to grit their teeth and take more American bombing.

The UN is probably the only hope the Kosovo Albanians now have of getting back to their homes - some of them, that is, those who might be able to claim citizenship of Yugoslavia or who might be prepared to return without hope of independence or even real autonomy. They will not expect any apologies from the Serbs for the "ethnic cleansing" of the past five weeks. And should they ask Nato why so many Albanians had to be murdered while the alliance bombed, I can imagine the reply they will receive. It is regretted.