Nato chiefs will this week finally tell the Serbian government where they drop-ped thousands of cluster bombs during the Kosovo campaign, more than eight years after the bombardment finished.
Allied commanders have bowed to mounting pressure from foreign governments and pressure groups and will hand over full coordinates for the hundreds of bombing sorties. Belgrade hopes this could pinpoint thousands of unexploded munitions still littering parts of the country.
The pledge from Nato's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (Shape) will end a delay condemned by human rights groups and described as "shameful" by one British minister.
The US, Britain and Holland are believed to have dropped more than 2,000 cluster bombs – containing 380,000 sub-munitions – during Operation Allied Force, the three-month campaign to end Serb oppression in Kosovo in 1999. The RAF dropped 531 RBL755 cluster bombs, designed principally to destroy tanks and other armoured vehicles.
But furious condemnation erupted after at least 23 Serb civilians were killed by cluster munitions during the campaign. Since the operation, the Allied forces have admitted the bombs had a failure rate of at least 5 per cent, meaning up to 20,000 unexploded bomb-lets may be strewn across Serbia and Kosovo.
The sub-munitions are designed to explode immediately or burst to deposit anti-personnel devices over an area the size of several football pitches.
A conference this year heard that at least six Serbs – including three children – had been killed by exploding cluster munitions since 1999, and 12 people, six of them children, wounded. In the most notorious incident, five ethnic Albanian children were killed during the campaign, when seven youngsters picked up one of the "yellow killers", thinking it was a toy.
Serbian officials report that up to 23 square kilometres in six areas suffer "cluster contamination". Agriculture and development are banned in several rural areas.
But British ministers confessed this summer that, despite Serb requests, the co-ordinates of RAF bombing raids had not been given to Belgrade. Baroness Royall of Blaisdon said Britain had given the information to Nato, but it had not been passed on. She added: "I do think it is rather shameful."
Tory peer Lord Elton, a leading campaigner against the bombs, said ministers had confirmed in mid-May that the co-ordinates had been supplied to Nato and Nato "would in due course hand them to Serbia". He added: "That's eight years for children to blow their feet off. Why can't we send our co-ordinates direct and get others to do the same?".
Now critics claim it may be too late recover thousands of ageing, unstable munitions. The UK has contributed £86,000 to the Serbian Mine Action Centre for equipment; in Lebanon, Britain gave £2.7m to help the clean-up after the Israeli attack last summer.
A Foreign Office spokes-man said: "Nato now have everything they need and intend to share it with the Serbs in the next week."Reuse content