NATO, U.S. Claim Milosevic Uses Refugees as Human Shields
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 18, 1999 Ethnic Albanian refugees allegedly killed during a NATO raid in Kosovo last week may have been deliberately put in harm's way to serve as human shields, according to Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon.
There is compelling evidence Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is using this "diabolical" tactic to kill refugees and then blame NATO, Bacon said here May 17. A third of the people killed in NATO attacks may have been put near military targets by Milosevic specifically as human shields, he noted.
In the latest incident, Serb officials claim 79 refugees died during the May 13 attack on the Kosovar village of Korisa. U.S. military officials confirmed American F-16s dropped two 500- pound laser-guided bombs and six 500-pound gravity bombs on the site deemed a legitimate military target. Strike planners had confirmed the site housed a special police command post and several artillery pieces.
NATO was unaware, however, that Serb authorities apparently had moved a group of refugees out of nearby hills to a parking lot near the command post, Bacon said at a May 15 briefing. "They ended up sleeping next to a building that the Serbs had to know was a target, because we had hit many other installations like this throughout Kosovo over the last seven weeks," he said.
A survivor of the attack confirmed the Serbs' intent, Bacon said. The eyewitness, interviewed on German radio Deutsch Welle, said the refugees were "herded into an area and told before the event took place: 'Now you're going to see what a NATO bombing strike is like.'"
Milosevic began using human shields in March, Bacon said. Since then, circumstantial evidence, Kosovo Liberation Army reports and refugees' personal testimony indicate he is using them more frequently in Kosovo. "We have several specific reports that people have been placed under bridges within Kosovo that the Serbs believe will be bombed," Bacon said.
Milosevic has also used Serbs this way, Bacon said. "We've seen pictures in Serbia where he's put people on bridges to use them as human shields."
"No matter what Milosevic says," Bacon pointed out, "the number of Kosovar Albanians who have been unfortunately killed in NATO attacks is tiny compared to the number of people he has massacred." NATO officials believe there may have been over 5,000 mass executions in Kosovo. They fear a significant percentage of the 100,000 draft-age men reported missing may be dead.
Milosevic's use of human shields complicates NATO's military operations, but has not shaken the alliance's resolve, he stressed.
"We cannot be deterred by these tactics. We will continue to carry out this air campaign as effectively as possible." NATO forces must proceed cautiously and are making every effort to avoid civilian casualties during Operation Allied Force, but U.S. and NATO officials warn, collateral damage is a regrettable consequence of combat.
The incident at Korisa is the third major accident involving civilian casualties since NATO's air campaign began in late March. Allied aircraft accidentally hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, May 7, killing three people. About 65 refugees died April 15 during a NATO attack on what was thought to be a military convoy.
"We try very hard to avoid these casualties, but combat is inherently dangerous and accidents cannot be avoided," Bacon said here at a May 15 press conference. "NATO deeply regrets civilian casualties at Korisa or anywhere else in Yugoslavia that result from the campaign against Yugoslav forces."
NATO's air campaign is making significant progress against Serb ground forces, Bacon said. Each day, they lose more heavy equipment and other military assets. "We don't have good figures on the number of troops that have been lost," he said. "We do have anecdotal reports through the KLA and other sources of units being unable to move because they're out of fuel or supplies. There is a steady accretion of information that the attacks are working."
NATO intends to accelerate its attacks, striking Serb ground forces and police units in Kosovo with increasing force, Bacon said. NATO has already taken out a third of the Serbs' tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces, he said.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, vice director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff, said Serb forces are hiding fuel trucks and other vehicles in caves and among trees, but NATO forces continue taking them out. The Serbs are "doing whatever they can to husband their equipment," Wald said May 15 at the Pentagon. "When we find it," he said, "We kill it."
Since Operation Allied Force began March 24, NATO forces have flown nearly 22,000 sorties. At present, allied aircraft fly up to 700 sorties per day, and the operational pace continues to escalate. The United States and other allies are still adding planes to NATO's air arsenal.
Three Air National Guard units sent 18 A-10s to Italy May 16, part of 176 additional aircraft the United States plans to deploy, Bacon announced. Each of the following units sent six planes and about 170 people: the 104th Fighter Wing, Westfield, Mass.; the 110th Fighter Wing, Battle Creek, Mich.; and the 124th Fighter Wing, Boise, Idaho. Later this week, 24 U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18Ds will deploy to Hungary from Beaufort, S.C.
Kosovar refugees continue to arrive at Fort Dix, N.J., and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. The United States has agreed to accept a total of 20,000. About 2,500 are now at Fort Dix and the rest are due in by the end of the month, Wald reported May 17.