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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

NATO Plane Mistakenly Hits Bulgarian Suburb

Balkans: Missile causes no casualties, but it destroys home near capital, Sofia. Concerns about standards of air campaign are heightened.

April 30, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRUSSELS — A NATO warplane inadvertently fired a missile into a suburb of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, heightening concerns about the accuracy of the alliance air campaign only a day after a laser-guided bomb fell short of its target and killed civilians in southern Yugoslavia.

Despite the errant air-to-ground HARM missile that destroyed an empty house 30 miles from the border with Yugoslavia late Wednesday, NATO officials claimed a successful day of airstrikes against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's still-vast arsenal.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials also said several days of attacks near Podgorica, Montenegro's capital, showed the limits of the alliance's deference toward the smaller Yugoslav republic, whose pro-Western leaders oppose Milosevic.

"While NATO strongly supports the democratic government in Montenegro, we have no choice when it comes to protecting the security of our forces and disabling the capacity of military assets that support the campaign of repression of Belgrade in Kosovo," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told reporters, noting that the Yugoslav regime had been using the Podgorica airfield as a hiding place for military hardware.

The latest NATO raids came as U.S., Russian, German and U.N. diplomats scurried around Europe in search of a coordinated approach on a negotiated solution, with Moscow's special envoy for the Balkans airing what he said was a new proposal. But all acknowledged that prospects for peace remain distant.

In other developments in the Balkan crisis:

* NATO forces early today struck the headquarters of the Yugoslav army and the federal Interior Ministry, in the alliance's strongest attack on the center of Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, news reports said. Witnesses said missiles also hit a residential district, injuring four people and damaging two houses. Other targets near Belgrade reportedly were under fire, including an oil refinery. In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, two loud explosions were heard shortly after midnight.

* Yugoslavia filed accusations with the World Court in The Hague that 10 NATO states were violating international law with the airstrikes. Going before the U.N.'s highest judicial body, Yugoslavia demanded an immediate end to the bombardment. The White House and State Department dismissed the move as "absurd."

* The Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived in Belgrade with a delegation of religious leaders on a mission to win freedom for three U.S. soldiers who were captured March 31. He said he hoped to meet with Milosevic as well as the POWs. The Clinton administration has urged him to tell Milosevic that there can be no link between a halt in NATO's airstrikes and the release of the soldiers.

* More than 6,500 refugees arrived in Macedonia on Thursday, the third day in a row that the tide of refugees has increased. Three refugees, including a 12-year-old girl, were killed when a mine exploded as they attempted to cross from Kosovo northwest of Blace, Macedonia, according to U.N. and Macedonian reports.

* In Greece, anti-NATO protesters held up a trainload of British troops and military equipment headed for neighboring Macedonia, then fooled another convoy passing through Salonika by switching road signs and diverting the trucks and all-terrain vehicles in the wrong direction.

* U.N. officials fear that many or most of about 200 ethnic Albanian men pulled from columns of fleeing ethnic Albanians by Yugoslav forces on Tuesday were later slain. Refugees crossing into Albania later reported seeing more than 100 bodies near the Kosovo villages of Meja and Oriza. "If this is correct, it would be one of the single biggest atrocities" of the conflict, said Ray Wilkinson of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

* On Capitol Hill, the House Appropriations Committee approved by a voice vote a $12.9-billion spending package that not only helps pay for the Kosovo air campaign but also boosts military pay and readiness. It was more than twice the $6 billion requested by President Clinton. The full House is expected to vote on the package next week. The Senate is working on a similar spending bill.

* Also in Washington, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered 10 more B-52 bombers to join in the NATO air campaign. At a news conference, Cohen indicated that the heavy bombers for the most part will probably drop "dumb" bombs--so called because they fall without the help of any guidance system--on troop concentrations in Kosovo. Earlier in the conflict, B-52s were used primarily to fire precision cruise missiles, but the Pentagon inventory of those weapons is running low.

Analysts Say Serbs May Be to Blame

The wayward HARM missile that struck near Sofia was fired in self-defense at an active Yugoslav radar facility near the border with Bulgaria when the alliance warplane detected that it had been locked on to by a surface-to-air rocket launcher, NATO spokesman Shea said.

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