- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2000

THE HAGUE A full-scale investigation of NATO commanders for their role in last year's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia remains possible though "unlikely," U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte said in an interview.

Mrs. del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the U.N. International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, said she will decide whether to launch a formal investigation after she receives a report from an advisory committee, expected within a month.

"At this point, it is just an inquiry, not a proper investigation," she said during an interview Monday in which she discussed the issue with obvious reluctance. "I haven't seen anything that indicates" an investigation would be required.

She said she is also waiting for former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana to reply to specific questions she posed to him last month.

Mrs. del Ponte, a former attorney general of Switzerland, opened a diplomatic hornet's nest just before Christmas when she revealed that her office was inquiring into the alliance's actions during the 78-day air war to expel Serbian troops from Kosovo.

That inquiry announced just three months after her arrival at The Hague was based on complaints lodged by a Canadian lawyer and humanitarian groups who charged that NATO had deliberately chosen civilian targets.

"The prosecutor cannot just receive the complaints and say, 'Oh no, it's nothing,' and throw it away," she said. Especially difficult to ignore was a complaint delivered to her office in mid-December by a committee of the Russian parliament.

"The Duma came to me. They had a lot of documents and they were working with [the Yugoslav government in] Belgrade. It was a big pile of documents," she said, sweeping her hand at eye level over a conference table.

She declined to say precisely what was in the files but said she had passed the information to a working group established by her predecessor, Louise Arbour, who had also received complaints about NATO.

Her spokesman, Paul Risley, said separately that the tribunal realizes NATO "is a political organization made up of member states whose armies very clearly respect the rule of law and the general conventions on war. A prosecution is very unlikely."

Mrs. del Ponte said the complaints she received accused NATO of targeting civilians, accidentally massacring refugees and flying bombing sorties so high that the pilots were safer than civilians.

"I will come out [with findings] as I get the answer," she said.

"And I will be frank. I am not blind. I know that if I must open an inquiry, I will put myself in a bad position."

Nevertheless, Mrs. del Ponte said, she cannot lay the charges aside. "I am a prosecutor, I have jurisdiction and I cannot ignore complaints," she said forcefully. Indicating that she would be reluctant to move ahead with a formal probe, she said, "Understand, the decision to undertake an investigation would be legal, not political."

But any investigation would have profound political consequences. At a time when the tribunal is trying desperately to apprehend high-ranking Serbian political and military leaders, Mrs. del Ponte can ill afford to antagonize the countries whose troops must make any arrests.

Western governments pay the bulk of the tribunal's $96 million budget, provide legal and technical expertise, and have the only police and military forces in the region.

"I don't know if she realizes how much NATO member governments do for her," said one Western diplomat, who has closely watched Mrs. del Ponte's handling of the inquiry. "I fear she could do lasting damage."

David Scheffer, the State Department's ambassador for war crimes issues, has acknowledged that the Security Council resolutions that established the tribunal give it the jurisdiction to examine NATO's air campaign over Kosovo.

"But we strongly believe that there is no basis for launching an investigation of NATO. And we have certainly made that view clear," he said in an interview last week.

Mrs. del Ponte who in her colorful career as a Swiss prosecutor and attorney general has taken on the Italian and Russian mafias and even the Swiss banking industry said she was surprised by the vehemence of the reaction when her investigation of NATO became public.

"What I was reading, the bad reaction, the reaction of the Pentagon and the U.S. senators and some newspapers Why? I wonder that, why?

"From my prior experience, if you have nothing to worry about …" she trailed off with a frown. "I don't know why the Americans, some of the Americans, are so sensitive."

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