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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Civilians Killed in Airstrikes on Refugee Convoys

Kosovo: NATO and Yugoslavia trade accusations over assaults in which scores may have died. Pentagon confirms one raid but says pilots broke off attack.

April 15, 1999|PAUL WATSON and MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEJA, Yugoslavia — In one of the deadliest and most confusing days yet of Operation Allied Force, NATO and the Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milosevic accused each other Wednesday of launching air attacks that killed scores of fleeing Kosovo Albanians in at least two different places.

Yugoslav authorities maintained that their forces came under attack while escorting Albanian refugees out of the country and that NATO attacks have killed soldiers and civilians without discrimination. In one incident Wednesday, survivors reported that 20 people had died; a foreign reporter on the scene saw eight victims dead or dying. In another attack, Serbian media reported that 44 refugees had been killed.

The Pentagon said Wednesday that NATO warplanes had begun to attack a convoy on the road between Prizren and the Albanian border city of Kukes when pilots recognized civilian trucks and tractors mixed in with military vehicles. The pilots broke off the attack, Pentagon officials said, but it was not clear whether civilians were harmed before they did so.

NATO and Pentagon officials, citing refugee reports emerging from Albania on Wednesday, charged that the Serbs now are using their aircraft to help carry out their campaign of "ethnic cleansing" throughout Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

At the Pentagon, officials at first said that Yugoslav military escorts had turned their rage on refugees when they came under NATO air attack. A few hours later, the officials recanted the charges, admitting that they had no evidence for them.

Appearing to corroborate allegations that Serbs were to blame, however, ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo arriving at the Albanian border post of Morine on Wednesday night said they believed that their convoy had been bombed by Yugoslav forces and not by NATO airplanes, as officials in Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, charged. The attack cited by these refugees appeared to be different from the one referred to by the Pentagon and from the one whose aftermath was witnessed by a foreign reporter.

The refugees who reached Albania also disputed statements from Belgrade that they were on their way back to their homes when the attack occurred. The refugees said the opposite was true, that they were in the process of being driven out of Kosovo by force and were en route to the border.

By day's end in Washington, Clinton administration officials and the Pentagon's top brass were uncertain how to untangle the day's carnage and determine who had caused it. The fog of war had engulfed the operation, they acknowledged.

At Site of Attack, Confusion Was Deadly

In villages like Meja, where a column of fleeing Kosovo Albanians was struck by bombs Wednesday, the confusion was deadly. Meja, a small Kosovo Albanian farming village, is about three miles west of the town of Djakovica; farther east is Prizren. In the confusion, it was not clear if the Meja attack was the same as the one the Pentagon had referred to.

In Meja, the victims had been riding near the front of a convoy of 11 wagons, six of which were drawn by horses that more than an hour later were still stopped in their tracks.

They were in a column of refugees who fled the town of Junik and the nearby village of Pacaj when the area came under intense NATO bombardment Wednesday morning, several survivors said.

It is in the vicinity of Meja that the paths of refugees, soldiers, guerrillas and NATO warplanes have converged as Yugoslav forces fight what they claim are rebel incursions from Albania and as refugees flee in several directions.

During the height of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army's gains in Kosovo last summer, Junik was a key guerrilla headquarters. But Yugoslav forces seized it, and Junik is now a target of NATO's air war.

Even as dazed refugees who had survived the Meja attack came out of hiding in the woods Wednesday, NATO warplanes bombed targets on the other side of a low mountain ridge. Explosions shook the ground every few minutes.

Scattered among the corpses of Kosovo Albanian refugees lying on a dirt road near Meja, there were reminders of how NATO countries had tried to help them before the bombs fell.

A bulging sack landed just above the head of a young woman's body, both thrown by blasts from what several survivors said was an airstrike that killed at least 20 ethnic Albanian refugees, including a young boy.

The label "U.S.A. Flour" was printed across the front of the sack in large, bold letters. As a gift of relief aid, it also carried the warning "Not For Resale."

A few feet away lay the corpse of a young Kosovo Albanian woman who looked to be in her late teens or early 20s. It was hard to tell. A large piece of shrapnel had pierced her soft cheek, leaving a gaping wound.

Next to her was a small white carton with blue lettering that identified a different aid donor: the relief agency Doctors of the World. It is based in France, another NATO member.

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