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Monday, April 19, 1999 Published at 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK

World: Europe

Nato 'may have killed refugees'

Belgrade says more than 70 refugees were killed

Kosovo: Special Report
Nato has moved to end days of speculation by admitting its warplanes may have caused civilian casualties in attacks on two convoys in Kosovo last week.

In a detailed briefing, US Brigadier-General Daniel Leaf told reporters that Nato aircraft attacked two targets in Kosovo last Wednesday - one large and one small.

He said it was possible that civilians were injured in both incidents.

Nick Childs reports from Brussels: "The Nato account still does not tally"
Belgrade had accused Nato of killing more than 70 Kosovo Albanian refugees near the town of Djakovica.

The main points of the Nato briefing were as follows:

  • There were two incidents, separated geographically and by time.

  • In the first incident, north-west of the town of Djakovica, a military target was hit - civilian casualties cannot be explained.

  • The second target, south-east of Djakovica, was a mixed convoy which pilots believed included military vehicles. There may well have been damage to a civilian vehicle. This incident had previously been referred to by Nato.

Brigadier-General Leaf: "Nato may have inadvertantly struck civilian-type vehicles"
"This is a very complicated scenario and we will never be able to establish all the exact details," Gen Leaf said.

"I cannot explain the bodies seen on Serb TV. There is the possibility that civilian-type vehicles were struck and there may have been civil personnel harmed. We can't determine that clearly."

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He said "in the chaos that is Kosovo" there were some reports that some victims may have died from machine gun and mortar wounds.

He said that as the attack on the second convoy was under way, and after a number of bombs had been dropped, the strike had been called off when new information indicated there might be civilians in the area.

Asked about reports that British Harrier pilots had warned about the refugee column, Gen Leaf said: "There have been reports of British Harrier pilots seeing a convoy and identifying it as having refugees. This occurred at approximately the same time but they weren't in communication with the aircraft in question."

According to the BBC's Nick Childs in Brussels, the Nato account still does not explain some of the television pictures from the ground that have been seen.

Refugees turned back

The huge flow of refugees across Kosovo's borders with Albania, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Montenegro has almost ground to a halt with Serb forces being blamed for turning them back.

Nicholas Witchell: "The most sophisticated army in the world dropped bombs on tractors"
And as the Nato bombing campaign continued overnight, President Yeltsin warned that Russia would not allow the West to establish control over Yugoslavia.

A United Nations spokesman said the Albanian border remained open officially since Yugoslavia announced it was cutting diplomatic relations with Tirana, but a BBC correspondent says only a few families have crossed over.

They have reported seeing lines of empty tractors and cars where previously thousands of refugees had been queuing to pass into Albania.

The UN refugee agency said it was a fairly ominous development and voiced puzzlement at what the Serbs were doing.

The UN said the flow of refugees into Macedonia and Montenegro had also stopped.

Nearly three-quarters of a million people are estimated to have fled Kosovo since the crisis began in March last year.

(Click here for a map showing recent Nato strikes)

In operations during Nato's 26th night of bombing, immense damage was reported by Yugoslav media in the central town of Paracin and a government building in the centre of Yugoslavia's second city, Novi Sad, was largely destroyed.

The official news agency, Tanjug, says repeated bombing earlier of the main oil refinery at Pancevo near Belgrade polluted the River Danube with an oil slick.

Only favourable winds stopped toxic gas from a chemical plant bombed nearby causing severe health problems, it said.

Air campaign continues

Western leaders have promised to continue the air campaign until President Milosevic backs down,

Nato's supreme commander, General Wesley Clark visited Albania which is playing host to a growing force of US troops.

[ image: US Apache helicopters are due to be deployed soon]
US Apache helicopters are due to be deployed soon
During his visit General Clark announced the imminent deployment of 24 Apache attack helicopters for use against Serb forces in Kosovo, although their arrival in Tirana has since been delayed by bad weather.

In London, the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, speaking to European bankers, said each renewed act of ethnic cleansing was another reason to stand firm against President Milosevic.

Mr Blair said Kosovo would be returned to the ethnic Albanians.

US officials have also been speaking of up to 100,000 ethnic Albanian men having disappeared in Kosovo.

The US ambassador-at-large for war crimes, David Scheffer also raised the prospect, as have other western leaders, of an indictment by the War Crimes Tribunal of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Discussions are also reported to be taking place among Nato members on whether to take military action to stop supplies of imported oil from reaching Yugoslavia, especially through ports in Montenegro.

Yugoslav pressures neighbours

Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic accused Albania of carrying out aggression against Yugoslav territory in Kosovo and said there was no purpose in maintaining relations.

He also said large quantities of military equipment were being smuggled into Kosovo.

At the same time the Yugoslav army is moving against rebellious figures in the government of Montenegro, the junior partner in the Yugoslav federation which has been trying to stay neutral in the conflict.

The Yugoslav authorities have issued an arrest warrant against the Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister, Novak Kilibarda, a fierce critic of Mr Milosevic.

He has rejected the arrest warrant as "invalid" and warned that the Montenegrin authorities had given him "appropriate physical protection".

He said there could be "serious consequences" if the Yugoslav authorities attempted to arrest him.

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