Yugoslavia Claims NATO Hit Refugees
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ NATO warplanes dropped cluster bombs on a convoy of ethnic Albanian refugees in Kosovo early today, killing as many as 100 civilians, state-controlled media claimed.
NATO said it was investigating the report and could make no immediate comment. The State Department urged skepticism on Serb reports that blamed the allies for the attack until the facts are known.
Tank-killing Apache helicopters flown by U.S. pilots held a live-fire exercise today along the Kosovo-Albania border, meanwhile, and the first lady visited a refugee camp in Macedonia.
Reporters taken by Serb authorities to the village, Korisa, saw dozens of charred bodies and wrecked tractors.
In Korisa, 40 miles southwest of Kosovo’s capital, an Associated Press Television News crew allowed to travel to the scene saw bodies, including two children, burned beyond recognition near two craters beside a road.
Shocked survivors stood around, and reporters were shown a group of about 50 women and children huddled in the cellar of a village home crying.
Some 20 wrecked tractors were seen smoldering nearby, and TV footage showed wrecked buildings and a single tennis shoe lying in the road.
One villager, Feriz Emini, asked how many were killed, said: ``I don’t know the exact number. Many. Everyone was sleeping.″
Local police claimed there are no police or military installations near Korisa.
Yugoslav officials said a convoy of about 500 refugees was heading out of Kosovo toward Albania and had decided to spend the night at Korisa.
NATO said it was investigating the report by the Tanjug state-controlled news agency.
Jamie Shea, the NATO spokesman, promised the ``full story ... full facts″ _ and an admission of wrongdoing if an investigation shows NATO’s warplanes made an errant airstrike.
He said the allies could not immediately confirm or deny the Tanjug report of 100 dead; other Yugoslav media gave a different casualty figure: killing 50 and injuring 50.
NATO has admitted to several wayward missiles since its air campaign against Yugoslavia began _ most recently the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade a week ago that killed three journalists.
The Serb Media Center reported NATO aircraft dropped eight cluster bombs on the village.
It said all the wounded, mainly women, children and old people, were taken to Prizren’s hospital.
British officials said any investigation into erroneous airstrikes now include a new element.
``There are now reports of Kosovar people being rounded up and herded under bridges so that when NATO aircraft attack these bridges, these people can be displayed as civilian casualties,″ British Defense Minister John Spellar told reporters in London.
In Washington, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the attack claim is being carefully reviewed because ``it’s an area where there was Serb shelling and in the general area there was substantial NATO activity.
``Given the past practice of the Belgrade television of misleading the world and misleading the Serb people with blatant, outright lies, I would urge everyone involved to treat Belgrade’s information on this subject with extreme caution until NATO, which has shown its willingness to admit when mistakes were made, has been able to complete its assessment of what happened,″ Rubin said.
If verified _ and Shea noted foreign journalists normally denied access were bused to the reported attack site for propaganda purposes, the casualty figure would be the second-highest in NATO’s seven-week-old air campaign.
On April 14, 75 ethnic Albanian refugees died in an accidental attack on a convoy near the southwestern Kosovo town of Djakovica. NATO acknowledged a misfire.
Seeing for herself the plight of Kosovo Albanians, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said today that America and its allies will not let ``the evil″ perpetrated against them by Slobodan Milosevic prevent refugees from returning to their homeland.
Hundreds of smiling refugee children crowded the fence at the Stenkovec camp in Macedonia as the first lady entered the tent city, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill, a key figure in failed negotiations with Yugoslavia’s president.
The huge camp, with some 23,000 refugees, is the main tent city where Kosovo Albanians with relatives in the United States are screened for possible transport to America.
Nearly one-third of the some 780,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who have fled or been expelled since March by Serbian forces from Kosovo, a neighboring province of Yugoslavia’s Serb republic, are in Macedonia. Most are in Albania.
Meanwhile, the long delay in deploying U.S. Apache helicopters in Kosovo may be coming to an end after the gunships’ Albania-based artillery support units held their first live-fire exercises today.
The units fired some 100 rounds from 105 mm howitzers at a range 30 miles northeast of Tirana’s Rinas airport.
``We are ready to go. We are sick and tired of waiting here for a month without doing what we are trained to do,″ said an Apache pilot, prevented from giving his name by U.S. military regulations.
Two Apaches have crashed in training flights in Albania, killing two pilots. NATO officials say the losses and intelligence showing Yugoslav forces still have a number of SA-18 shoulder-fired missiles have delayed their use in battle.
Earlier today, NATO reported its heaviest bombing of the campaign that began March 24, pounding Serbian targets, knocking out electricity in Yugoslavia’s three largest cities _ Belgrade, Nis and Novi Sad, and hitting arms and supplies hidden in tunnels.
NATO said it had launched 679 sorties, the largest number so far _ including 237 strikes on targets on the ground and another 90 against Yugoslav air defenses.
All manned aircraft returned safely to base, NATO said, although it acknowledged two unmanned reconnaissance drones were lost. The cause of the crashes were being investigated.
Airstrikes concentrated on Serb ground forces in Kosovo that have conducted a crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists since February 1998.