NATO ADMITS MISTAKE; ALLIED JET BOMBED CIVILIANS IN KOSOVO.
NATO acknowledged Thursday that an allied warplane had mistakenly bombed a civilian vehicle in southern Kosovo on Wednesday while trying to stop Serb forces from attacking ethnic Albanians.
Portraying the episode as an unfortunate but understandable accident of war, NATO officials took the unusual step of broadcasting a taped interview with the American pilot of an F-16 that participated in the attack.
In calm tones, the pilot described circling over villages set aflame by Serb troops before directing a laser-guided bomb at what he believed was a military truck. He then left the scene and another patrol continued the attack. The end result, according to NATO, was that a civilian vehicle was destroyed.
NATO said it had no information on the number of civilian casualties. Yugoslav authorities, who took Western correspondents to see what they said were victims of the NATO attack, said more than 70 civilians were killed.
While NATO Commander Gen. Wesley Clark retracted his claim that it was Serb forces who had done the damage, allied officials said Yugoslav military and paramilitary units had put hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians at risk by forcing them from their homes and by attacking them.
Though NATO acknowledged striking a civilian vehicle, the time and location it gave still differed from the reports of the Pentagon, refugees reaching Albania and reporters taken to the scene. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancies.
While the American pilot spoke of an attack north of Djakovica, for example, the reporters were taken to an area south of the town, and refugees also spoke of being attacked on the road south of Djakovica. NATO acknowledged that it also had launched attacks south of the town, but made no reference to any erroneous strikes there.
NATO said it would not put new restrictions on its attacks against Serb forces in Kosovo. Allies officials said it was unrealistic to think that civilian casualties could be excluded in an intense bombardment designed to force the Yugoslav military and paramilitary units out of Kosovo.
Still, the fate of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Albanians has become an emotional debating point for both sides, especially since NATO has cast itself as the potential savior of the Kosovars.
With its account Thursday, NATO was trying to maintain its own credibility by owning up to a mistake while deflating Belgrade's repeated allegations that the alliance was wantonly bombing civilians.
``NATO confirms, from its preliminary investigation, that it appears that one of its aircraft mistakenly dropped a bomb on a civilian vehicle in a convoy yesterday,'' said NATO's military spokesman, Italian Brig. Gen. Giuseppe Marani. ``Serb police or military vehicles may have been in or around the convoy.''
Belgrade has charged that at least 70 civilians were killed Wednesday in NATO raids on Kosovo. NATO says it has no way of knowing the number of those that might have been killed or wounded by its attack, but formally apologized for the civilian casualties.
The fighting in southern Kosovo vividly illustrates what military historians call ``the fog of war.'' Information about the conflict is a confusing welter of reports based on NATO briefings and reconnaissance photos, e-mails from Kosovo Liberation Army partisans inside Kosovo, the testimony of refugees fleeing across the Albanian and Macedonian border, and the Serb-controlled press. Many of the on-the-scene accounts by journalists are based on trips to the region organized by authorities in Belgrade.