- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 1999

U.S. officials yesterday decried an announcement from The Hague that the U.N. war-crimes prosecutor conducted an inquiry into the actions of NATO commanders and pilots during the bombing of Serbia.
Former military officers also expressed shock that such an international investigation could result in indictments, saying bombing blunders against civilians at 20,000 feet are not a criminal matter.
The White House issued a statement saying: "We point out that NATO fully followed the laws of armed conflict in training, targeting and operations involving Kosovo and that NATO undertook extraordinary efforts to minimize collateral damage. Any inquiry into the conduct of its pilots would be completely unjustified.
"We understand that the [war-crimes] prosecutor … has been approached by academics and a few others with complaints about NATO's operation in Kosovo. We know of no ongoing investigation by the international criminal tribunal concerning these complaints."
But a spokesman for the chief U.N. prosecutor at The Hague said Tuesday the office has compiled a confidential report on NATO's air strikes. The spokesman refused to rule out indictments against individuals.
The prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, was previously asked by the London Observer if she was prepared to press charges against NATO personnel. "If I am not willing to do that, I am not in the right place. I must give up the mission," she was quoted as saying. Mrs. Del Ponte, a former Swiss government prosecutor, will review the report before deciding whether to take further action.
She added, however, that her top priority was to investigate Serbian war atrocities against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.
There were about 20 incidents of NATO bombs mistakenly hitting civilians during Operation Allied Force, according to NATO and news reports from Serbia. Belgrade claimed more than 2,000 civilians were killed.
The White House, in a statement to The Washington Times, said, "The real issue, as the tribunal concluded last May, is that Slobodan Milosevic and his top associates deserve to be indicted and should stand trial for crimes against humanity."
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, defended NATO personnel and suggested there is no reason for an inquiry.
"We're darn sure we followed the laws of armed conflict for anything and everything in Kosovo," he said. "I'd be hard pressed to think of an instance when a nation or coalition was more scrupulous in trying to avoid civilian casualties or collateral damage. It was so clear during the operations. It was central to our planning and conduct."
Asked about the appropriateness of a tribunal inquiry, Adm. Quigley said: "I can't speak for Del Ponte as to whether she thinks it's appropriate or has any intention to carry it forward. Any look at the way we did business there would stand the toughest scrutiny."
He said the prosecutor's office has not asked the Defense Department for any information on the 78-day bombing campaign that ended in June.
Former military officers expressed outrage that an international prosecutor might equate the unintentional bombing of a civilian target with the thousands of civilian deaths inflicted by Serbian forces.
Retired Vice Adm. Richard C. Allen, who flew 77 combat missions over Vietnam, said any international investigation, if necessary, should be targeted at a country's government, not its pilots.
"I would find it alarming," Adm. Allen said. "I don't know of any time in the past where individual pilots would have been charged with inappropriate bombing. Usually, charges like that are against a country conducting the bombing, not against individuals.
"I just can't see where the country would not step up to bat and say, 'Wait a minute. You can't charge our people with improper conduct because they were following the orders given by their country.' I may have dropped bombs here and there that killed civilians. I don't know. Does that make me culpable when I didn't pick the target, I didn't pick the mission, I didn't pick Vietnam? I was sent there by my country."
"It comes down to the bottom line: War is hell, and there's going be incidents that occur during combat operations that are just not ever traceable to anything other than the action of war," he said.
A naval source said The Hague's announcement was a hot topic yesterday among Navy officers during a meeting at the Pentagon. One officer, gesturing to his wings chevron, said, "If they're going to do this, they can have these."
The tribunal action fueled suspicions by U.S. conservatives that the United Nations could be a threat to American autonomy.
Retired Army Col. Richard H. Black, who headed the service's criminal-law division at the Pentagon, said he helped draft the rules for the U.N. tribunal in 1993 when it began to probe war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
He said he instructed lawyers to ensure defendants received full due process because he feared that one day a U.N. court could be used against American service members.
"I was very leery of the project because I suspected the war-crimes tribunal would not go away once it had done its job," said Mr. Black, of Sterling, Va., now a state lawmaker in the General Assembly. "It did not surprise me at some point the United Nations agency would turn against the U.S.
"My guess is the U.N. will be reluctant to go toe to toe with the United States on this issue. I don't think they're strong enough today. Ten years from now, I think the United Nations could be a serious threat to our national sovereignty, and I think we could see our soldiers hauled before U.N. tribunals and imprisoned."
The Pentagon hailed Operation Allied Force as the most accurate bombing campaign in military history, thanks primarily to laser- and satellite-guided munitions. It claimed that 99.6 percent of munitions hit the intended targets in nearly 10,000 bombing missions.
NATO did, however, admit to the mistaken bombing of about 20 civilian sites. They included a passenger train crossing a railroad bridge at the precise moment an air-launched missile hit; the bombing of a civilian truck convoy thought to be Serbian military vehicles; and the B-2 stealth bomber attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. That mistake was blamed on outdated U.S. intelligence information that designated the embassy location as the site of a defense-industry building.

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