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Cohen Regrets Civilian Deaths

April 15, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Pentagon leaders expressed regret Thursday for the civilians killed in a mistaken NATO attack on a refugee convoy in Kosovo, but seethed at the prospect of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic using the tragedy for propaganda gains.

Defense Secretary William Cohen said the pilot was evading Serb anti-aircraft artillery and missile fire at the time and had to make a ``split-second decision″ when he spotted the vehicle convoy.

``It was under extraordinary circumstances with the kind of stress placed upon pilots,″ Cohen told the Senate Armed Services Committee in the first congressional hearing on the air war since it began March 24.

``Any time there’s a loss of innocent life, of civilians being killed during the course of combat, it is regrettable,″ Cohen said.

Testifying with Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Cohen acknowledged that the Kosovo conflict may stretch into summer and said American casualties are likely. Many committee members expressed deep doubt that NATO can win without ground troops.

Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., a 2000 presidential contender, urged the administration to ask Congress for a declaration of war and said he would vote against it. Evoking images of the Vietnam quagmire, Smith said this was the ``Balkan swamp.″

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed disbelief that the administration had not started planning for a ground war in Kosovo. He said NATO’s attacks should have hit harder from the first day.

``Limited actions beget limited results,″ said McCain, who is also seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

Cohen, facing the committee on which he sat during his years in the Senate, said the Clinton administration has no intention ``for the present″ to begin planning a land invasion. He urged Congress to be patient with an air campaign that will intensify in the days ahead.

In a presentation featuring colorful charts depicting NATO’s air offensive, Shelton told the senators that ``in the next few days″ attacks would be carried out against the most sensitive targets on NATO’s list. He said these targets were classified secret.

Shelton also emphasized the probability of NATO casualties, noting the alliance had been ``very fortunate″ to have suffered no human losses in the first three weeks of bombing. One U.S. Air Force F-117A stealth fighter-bomber was shot down March 27, but the pilot was rescued. The U.S. Army soldiers are being held as POWs.

Asked how he would define victory for NATO in this conflict, Shelton said it would either be compelling Milosevic to meet NATO’s demands or, failing that, degrading the Serb military so severely as to give the Kosovo Liberation Army the upper hand in their civil war.

Cohen told the committee the United States would ``do things differently″ in managing the war if not for the need to maintain unanimous support within the 19-nation North Atlantic alliance. On the other hand, he expressed doubt that the American public would have supported a unilateral U.S. military intervention in Kosovo.

In his remarks about Wednesday’s mistaken NATO attack on the refugee convoy, Cohen was particularly upset at the Yugoslavs’ reaction. He angrily denounced Milosevic for accusing NATO of an atrocity.

``For him to talk in terms of atrocities when in fact he has caused the displacement and the refugee status of in excess of a million people,″ and killed his own citizens ``on a wholesale basis,″ Cohen said, ``is one of the most grotesque statements that I could conceive of.″

``This really is a battle about freedom over fear,″ he said. ``That is exactly why we’re engaged in this particular mission. It’s a battle between democracy over dictatorship.

``And if we allow Milosevic to saturate the airwaves with these kinds of lies and vicious propaganda, then I fear that it’s back to the future. It’s back to Orwell’s ’1984,′ where someone like Milosevic or his equal can use the airwaves, can use the media, to twist and to turn into lies the truth _ where war is peace or slavery is freedom.″

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