RAF in bomb controversyBritain accused of dropping cluster munitions in Kosovo after Pentagon ban
Richard Norton-Taylor, Julian Borger
Monday February 7, 2000
The RAF continued to drop cluster bombs during the Kosovo war after Washington had ordered US pilots to stop using them, according to a report published today by Human Rights Watch.
The White House issued an executive order stopping the use of cluster bombs after 14 civilians were killed during a raid on the Serbian town of Nis, the New York-based human rights watchdog discloses.
The RAF dropped more than 500 cluster bombs during the 78-day war, far fewer than the US and none of them close to urban areas. However, unexploded cluster bombs - which distribute hundreds of bomblets - have maimed and killed civilians in Kosovo since the conflict ended last June.
The HRW report says that about 500 civilians died in 90 separate incidents - three times the number of incidents involving civilian casualties the Pentagon has admitted. But it rejects claims by the Yugoslav government that 5,000 civilians were killed. The Pentagon is due to publish a report on the bombing campaign today.
Cluster bombs had already killed up to 150 civilians before the attack on Nis on May 7 last year. HRW - which has called for cluster bombs to be banned - says the Pentagon secretly ordered a halt to the use of the munitions in mid-May, but alleges that "British forces continued using cluster bombs even after US forces discontinued their use".
Officials at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague conducted an internal appraisal of the case against Nato in December, but the chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte issued a statement insisting that the alliance was not the subject of a formal inquiry.
HRW's estimate of about 500 civilian casualties, though well above Nato estimates, is a fraction of that claimed by the the Yugoslav government. Today's report also alleges that the 76 ethnic Albanian prisoners Belgrade claimed were killed by Nato bombing of the Dubrava jail in Kosovo, were in fact executed by Serb forces after the raid.
Both during and after the war, Nato spokesmen insisted that Yugoslav forces operated a "human shield" policy and the HRW report lends weight to those claims.
However, it still constitutes an indictment of Nato air commanders, who the HRW claims could have done much more to reduce what was euphemistically referred to at the time as "collateral damage".
Several of the worst incidents involving civilian casualties resulted from the bombing of refugee convoys or bridges mistakenly identified as military targets.
The report says "these civilian deaths raise the question whether the fact that pilots were flying at high altitudes may have contributed to these civilian deaths by precluding proper target identification." HRW concludes there is insufficient evidence to make a definitive judgment.
"Once it made a decision to attack Yugoslavia, Nato should have done more to protect civilians," Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, said.
However, by HRW's count, more than half the civilian deaths caused by Nato raids occurred as a result of attacks on illegitimate or questionable targets or misdirected raids.
The report singles out the attack on the Serb Radio and Television headquarters in Belgrade on April 23 in which 16 civilians were killed and 16 injured. It rejects a claim made at the time by British ministers that it was a "legitimate military target".
Human Rights Watch calls on Nato governments to set up an independent commission to investigate the incidents, and draw up a new targeting and bombing doctrine.
HRW's military consultant William Arkin, who led the assessment team, said: "For a war with the reputation of being the smartest in history, there is an unfortunate pattern of Nato ignoring many important lessons from previous conflicts."