- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 1999

The United Nation's chief war crimes prosecutor at The Hague backtracked Thursday and said the office will not investigate the conduct of NATO commanders and pilots in the air war over Serbia.

The statement from prosecutor Carla del Ponte came the day after the White House decried any war crimes inquiry as "unjustified." The Pentagon vigorously defended the way U.S. commanders and fliers performed duties in the 78-day air campaign that ended in June with the withdrawal of Serbian troops from Kosovo.

Mrs. del Ponte backpedaled from previous statements. She had told British journalists she was prepared to seek indictments against NATO personnel, if necessary, in the bombing of civilians.

This week, her spokesman said her office had compiled a report on NATO's actions and was contemplating a next step.

Thursday, the former Swiss government prosecutor issued a statement from The Hague, where since 1993 a tribunal has been investigating and prosecuting war crimes committed in the Balkans. She acknowledged her staff had met with "a variety of individuals" who wanted NATO commanders investigated.

Her statement said:

"NATO is not under investigation by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. There is no formal inquiry into the actions of NATO during the conflict in Kosovo.

"During the past six months, the prosecutor has met with and received information from a variety of individuals and groups urging an investigation of NATO's actions during the Kosovo conflict, including members of the Russian Duma and several international legal experts. As with any other information provided to the prosecutor, this information is reviewed by her staff."

A formal criminal probe into NATO personnel many of whom are U.S. service members promised to worsen relations between the United Nations and Republicans in Congress. Some Republicans have balked at paying U.N. dues, while criticizing the organization's large bureaucracy and abortion funding.

The Washington Times Thursday quoted the White House as condemning any inquiry. Ex-military officers told the newspaper they were appalled that a U.N. prosecutor would equate atrocities carried out by the Serbs with the mistaken NATO bombing of civilians.

NATO bombs and missiles unintentionally struck about 20 civilian sites during the war, according to the alliance and Western news reports from Serbia. The government of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic claimed that more than 2,000 civilians were killed.

Western officials say Mr. Milosevic's forces systematically killed thousands of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo before leaving the Serbian province.

The White House on Wednesday said Mr. Milosevic's actions, not NATO's, should be the focus of Mrs. del Ponte's war-crimes investigation.

"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," the White House said. "Any inquiry into the conduct of its pilots would be completely unjustified."

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, the lion's share carried out by Americans.

Civilian sites bombed during the war 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 blunder was blamed on outdated U.S. intelligence information that designated the embassy location as the site of a defense industry building.

Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said:

"We're darn sure we followed the laws of armed conflict for anything and everything in Kosovo. 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."

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