Published on Wednesday, June 7, 2000 in the Independent / UK
NATO Deliberately Attacked Civilians In Serbia
by Robert Fisk
Only five days after NATO was "exonerated" by the International War Crimes Tribunal for its killing of civilians in Yugoslavia last year, Amnesty International today publishes a blistering attack on the Alliance, accusing it of committing serious violations of the rules of war, unlawful killings and in the case of the bombing of Serbia's television headquarters a war crime.
The 65-page Amnesty report details a number of mass killings of civilians in NATO raids and states that "civilian deaths could have been significantly reduced if NATO forces had fully adhered to the rules of war".
Legalistic in nature but damning in content the document reminds readers that Amnesty repeatedly condemned Serb atrocities against Kosovo Albanians the report highlights inconsistencies and obfuscation by NATO's official spokesmen. Although NATO told Amnesty that pilots operated under "strict Rules of Engagement", it refused to disclose details of the "rules" or the principles underlying them. The report says: "They did not answer specific questions Amnesty International raised about specific incidents ..."
Amnesty records that NATO aircraft flew 10,484 strike missions over Serbia and that Serbian statistics of civilian deaths in NATO raids range from 400-600 up to 1,500. It specifically condemns NATO for an attack on a bridge at Varvarin on 30 May last year, which killed at least 11 civilians. "NATO forces failed to suspend their attack after it was evident that they had struck civilians," Amnesty says.
When it attacked convoys of Albanian refugees near Djakovica on 14 April and in Korisa on 13 May, "NATO failed to take necessary precautions to minimise civilian casualties".
The report says NATO repeatedly gave priority to pilots' safety at the cost of civilian lives. In several investigations of civilian deaths, Amnesty quotes from reports in The Independent, including an investigation into the bombing of a hospital at Surdulica on 31 May. The Independent disclosed in November that Serb soldiers were sheltering on the ground floor of the hospital when it was bombed but that all the casualties were civilian refugees living on the upper floors.
Amnesty says: "If NATO intentionally bombed the hospital complex because it believed it was housing soldiers, it may well have violated the laws of war. According to Article 50(3) of Protocol 1, [of the Geneva Conventions] 'the presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character'.
"The hospital complex was clearly a civilian object with a large civilian population, the presence of soldiers would not have deprived the civilians or the hospital compound of their protected status." Some of Amnesty's harshest criticism is directed at the 23 April bombing of Serb television headquarters. "General Wesley Clark has stated, 'We knew when we struck that there would be alternate means of getting the Serb Television. There's no single switch to turn off everything but we thought it was a good move to strike it, and the political leadership agreed with us.'
"In other words, NATO deliberately attacked a civilian object, killing 16 civilians, for the purpose of disrupting Serb television broadcasts in the middle of the night for approximately three hours. It is hard to see how this can be consistent with the rule of proportionality."
On 17 May last year, NATO's secretary general, Javier Solana, wrote to Amnesty in response to its "grave concern" over the TV bombing, stating that RTS (Serb Radio and Television) facilities "are being used as radio relay stations and transmitters to support the activities of the ... military and special police forces, and therefore they represent legitimate military targets".
But at a meeting with NATO officials in Brussels early this year Amnesty was informed that Mr Solana's reference "was to other attacks on RTS infrastructure and not this particular attack on RTS headquarters."
The US Defense Department, Amnesty recalls, justified the television station bombing because it was "a facility used for propaganda purposes" and Amnesty itself says that Tony Blair "appeared to be hinting [in a subsequent BBC documentary] that one of the reasons that the station was targeted was because its video footage of the human toll of NATO mistakes ... was being re-broadcast by Western media outlets and was thereby undermining support for the war within the alliance".
Of the NATO destruction of the train at Gurdulica bridge on 12 April, Amnesty says: "NATO's explanation of the bombing particularly General Clark's account of the pilot's rationale for continuing the attack after he had hit the train suggests that the [American] pilot had understood that the mission was to destroy the bridge regardless of the cost in terms of civilian casualties ..."
NATO had not, Amnesty adds, "taken sufficient precautionary measures to ensure there was no civilian traffic in the vicinity of the bridge before launching the first attack". Amnesty quotes the NATO spokesman James Shea as admitting that the video of the train shown to the press at the time was speeded up (to three times its original speed) because NATO analysts routinely reviewed tapes at speed.
Mr Shea, Amnesty says, "said that the [NATO] press office was at fault for clearing the tape for public screening without slowing it down to the original speed".
Copyright 2000 Independent/UK