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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Convoy Deaths May Undermine Moral Authority


BRUSSELS — True or not, Yugoslav allegations that NATO bombs killed scores of civilians in two convoys of refugee-filled wagons in Kosovo heightened concerns within the military alliance Wednesday that such incidents could undermine the moral authority it has invoked in its three-week campaign of airstrikes against the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Despite conflicting accounts of who was to blame for the carnage, authorities in Yugoslavia were quick to stir up a war of words.

"This cannot be explained as an error when the columns of refugees were bombed four times," Serbian President Milan Milutinovic declared. "This was done deliberately . . . a massacre of Albanian refugees."

Leaders of NATO's 19 member countries cautioned against accepting the Yugoslav government's account of the incidents as the truth, and some hinted that many of the refugees may have died at the hands of the Serbs. But they could not erase the specter of dead civilians and Yugoslavia's rhetoric that this was a NATO-driven "crime against humanity."

"There's some worry about the public reaction [to the civilian casualties]. People are always worried," a senior White House official said Wednesday. "But I don't see anything particular yet. . . . The public isn't focused on the details of this. It still seems somewhat distant from their day-to-day lives."

The official acknowledged that the White House staff has looked at opinion polls on the war, but added: "We're not charting our policy according to the polls."

Officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels tried to retain the moral high ground for their air war to stop Milosevic's brutal campaign against the ethnic Albanians who once made up 90% of the 2 million residents of Kosovo, an independence-minded province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, attending a meeting of European Union leaders a few miles from NATO headquarters, said that even if the Yugoslav accounts turn out to be true, Milosevic has the ultimate responsibility for the deaths because his "ethnic cleansing" campaign is responsible for the war.

"If that is the case," Schroeder said, "this is one of the most appalling effects of a war--a war for which NATO is not responsible."

In the first three weeks of its aerial campaign, NATO has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid loss of life among civilians. At the Pentagon on Wednesday, Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles F. Wald called the "rules of engagement"--the guidelines that govern pilots' decisions about releasing weapons--"as strict as I've seen in my 27 years in the military."

Pentagon officials said the fear of civilian casualties has been a key factor in virtually every aspect of war planning. In recent days, they note, a large proportion of aerial bombardment missions have been scrubbed by planners or aborted by pilots because they posed too great a risk of causing civilian casualties.

"We take every single measure we can to try to avoid civilian casualties," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said. "Unfortunately . . . sometimes it happens."

Last week, NATO initially blamed Yugoslavia for the bombing of a row of houses in Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina, that killed 10 Serbian and ethnic Turkish civilians. Later, the alliance acknowledged that its own bombs were to blame.

On Monday, an allied strike on a railroad bridge left a passenger train in flames, taking 14 civilian lives, according to Yugoslavia.

The train appeared on the bridge just after the attacking plane released its bomb, according to film taken from the nose of the plane. With smoke obscuring much of the scene, the plane circled back and bombed the other end of the bridge just as the train slid across.

On Tuesday, NATO bombers struck targets in Pristina that apparently had no military use: a graveyard, a bus station and a playground.

Exactly what happened on the roads of southwest Kosovo on Wednesday remained far from clear this morning. There was no independent corroboration of Yugoslav charges that NATO bombs had claimed scores of civilian lives, although accounts from NATO officials, the Pentagon and a reporter on the scene seemed to differ.

NATO's military high command in Mons, Belgium, said its "pilots state they attacked only military vehicles. We cannot confirm press reports alleging that these attacks may have caused civilian casualties, but the reported incident will be fully investigated once all mission details have been reviewed."

Pentagon officials said pilots abruptly broke off an attack on a convoy of Serbian military vehicles when they noticed there were civilian vehicles in the mix. It was unclear whether their actions came too late to spare civilians.

Even if allied aircraft caused some of the carnage, White House spokesman David Leavy insisted, NATO solidarity--and the pace of the airstrikes--will persist. "The military campaign has to go forward," he said. "Everyone knows there are risks and consequences."

Whatever the civilian casualties so far in the war over Kosovo, they pale beside those in the 1991 Gulf War. Analysts estimate that 30,000 Iraqi civilians--as well as 75,000 to 120,000 Iraqi troops--were killed in the U.S.-led war and the subsequent Kurdish and Shiite uprisings against President Saddam Hussein.

Times staff writers John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels and Tyler Marshall, Doyle McManus and Melissa Healy in Washington contributed to this report.

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