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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Not-So-Smart Weapons Are Terrifying Civilians

Airstrikes: Errant bombs and missiles are slamming into residential neighborhoods of provincial capital.

April 14, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — NATO bombers scored several direct hits here in Kosovo's capital Tuesday--including a graveyard, a bus station and a children's basketball court.

The targets weren't mentioned when U.S. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's supreme commander, briefed reporters in Brussels on the air campaign's successes.

But the general stressed that almost all of his pilots' weapons are precision-guided, so-called smart bombs and that "almost without exception, the targets are very precisely struck."

He repeated that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not at war with the people of Yugoslavia, so Brankica Budimir might be forgiven for not understanding why her small Pristina apartment was in ruins.

A bomb or missile struck the edge of a playground in the center of Budimir's large apartment complex during a heavy bombardment about 1:40 a.m. Tuesday.

Nearby was a black steel pole holding up a basketball backboard and a hoop without a net, about 50 yards across a parking lot from Budimir's second-floor flat in Pristina's southern Dardanija district.

The explosion blasted out practically every window and sliding glass door in the four-story apartment block where Budimir, a 46-year-old Serb, lives a middle-class life with her three children, ages 10, 18 and 22.

Budimir, still trembling and in shock, swept up broken glass and pieces of twisted metal Tuesday in an apartment that wouldn't be out of place in many U.S. cities. Her youngest child's bedroom was decorated with movie posters, one advertising "101 Dalmatians" and the other "Aladdin."

Overcome with tears, Budimir apologized for losing her composure--and for what she was about to say.

"If this is NATO democracy, and the fight for humanism and human lives, this should be held against their own honor," Budimir, a researcher at Pristina's Center for the Environment, said in the wreckage of her small kitchen.

"Maybe this should happen to them so that their children grow up in fear and panic. I don't like to believe this, but they have gone overboard."

No one was reported killed by the explosion outside Budimir's apartment, but that was small consolation to the hundreds of traumatized residents left to pick through the remains of their homes and cars.

Jana Vlasacevic, 70, thought the night's airstrikes were over and had just come up from the cellar with her son. She was asleep on the living-room couch when the blast hit.

A piece of shrapnel pierced the painting that hung just above Vlasacevic in her third-floor apartment.

"I heard what sounded like lightning, and glass started to fall all over the place," Vlasacevic said through an interpreter. "We thought the building was in flames. Pure horror."

The apartment building is exclusively Serbian, and Budimir wondered aloud whether NATO attacked it in what she called "a terrorist act."

Asked Tuesday about the strike on Kosovo, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said, "We've got no bomb damage assessment from Pristina today."

Pristina's civilian casualties from the NATO strikes, which number in the dozens, include Serbs, ethnic Albanians, ethnic Turks and Gypsies, so no one feels safe anymore.

Since NATO didn't include Budimir's building in any of its slow-motion replays of smart bombs hitting their targets, or even mention the strike at Tuesday's briefing, it's impossible to know why it happened.

"Was this coincidence or on purpose?" Budimir asked herself, and then answered: "I don't know. Was it done to create panic and revenge among Serbs? I don't know."

Standing amid the smoldering rubble of Pristina's bus terminal Tuesday, director Dragan Manojlovic couldn't see the logic behind NATO's strategy.

Bombs destroyed most of the two-story bus station, the main public transport hub linking Kosovo, the southernmost province of Serbia, to the rest of Yugoslavia.

"There is no excuse for this. There was nothing military here," he insisted. "I don't think they even know why. Maybe it is psychological."

Manojlovic's terminal was one of the country's best bus stations and had a computerized ticketing service, he said proudly.

It was about 500 yards away--and on the other side of the highway--from an army barracks, which NATO destroyed with bombs over several days and nights.

NATO also hit a fuel depot on the southern edge of Pristina early Tuesday, destroying one large storage tank but apparently leaving at least two still intact.

The same bombing run destroyed a plastics factory in the next lot, and about 30 graves in a cemetery adjacent to the fuel depot.

It was the second time the graveyard has been bombed. On April 7, NATO blasted a huge crater at the other end of the cemetery, enraging Orthodox Serbs who saw remains of their loved ones scattered on the ground.

Nada Turcinovic had come to the cemetery Tuesday morning to bury her son, Zoran Dragutinovic, but she had to sit and wait, weeping on a curb, until the roar of NATO jets finally passed around 10:35 a.m.

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