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NATO: We Mistakenly Bombed Refugees

April 15, 1999 GMT

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ NATO today acknowledged mistakenly bombing a refugee convoy, but blamed the Serbs for putting the refugees in harm’s way.

``NATO confirms, from its preliminary investigation, it appears that one of its aircraft mistakenly dropped a bomb on a civilian vehicle in a convoy yesterday,″ said spokesman Arild Isegg, reading a statement in Brussels, Belgium.

Meanwhile, thousands of Kosovar Albanians chased by Serb artillery fire poured into neighboring states today. Along the tense Albania-Yugoslav border, international observers reported a new round of Serb shelling.

The NATO statement said it could not confirm the figures given by Serb sources, but regretted ``any harm to innocent civilians, and reminds that the circumstances in which this accident occurred are wholly the responsibility of President (Slobodan) Milosevic and his policies.″

Yugoslav officials said 64 people died and 20 were hurt in the attack. Previously, the alliance had suggested Serbs attacked the refugees, either from the ground or the air.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair said whoever had carried out the strike, Milosevic bore the ultimate responsibility.

``Of course we regret these things deeply when they happen. But that should not make us flinch from placing responsibility for this conflict squarely on the shoulders of ... Milosevic,″ he said.

The convoy’s movement came against a backdrop of what is described by Western officials as a vast campaign of ``ethnic cleansing″ in which Serbs have systematically driven more than half a million ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo. That exodus is now gathering new force again after ebbing in the past week.

Thousands of refugees poured across the Albanian border at the Morini crossing between midnight and dawn today, some of them witnesses to the carnage of the convoy attack. Shaban Hasanaj, 15, came along later in a column of thousands that fled toward the Albanian border on foot, and said he saw the aftermath of the strike.

``I could see bodies without heads, tangled arms and legs,″ he said.

Early today, what was apparently Serb artillery fire landed inside Albania just beyond the Morini border post. No casualties were reported, but the shells hit in an area where humanitarian workers have been operating and near where refugees have been passing.

Elsewhere along the frontier, OSCE spokesman Andrea Angeli reported machine gun and mortar fire early today near the border hamlets of Padesh and Kamenica, near where Serb forces briefly pushed across the border earlier this week. Eyewitnesses reported heavy shelling in the area as well.

Wednesday’s bloodshed along a rural road near Djakovica (pronounced jah-koh-VEET’-sah) marked the latest grim drama in a 3-week air war that has seen NATO warplanes hammer Serb targets throughout Yugoslavia in an effort to force Milosevic to accept a peace deal for Kosovo.

In the latest wave of attacks, NATO targeted military barracks, including in the suburbs of Belgrade, along with transmitters carrying state-run TV and a series of bridges. The state-run Tanjug news agency said 10 towns or their wider areas were targeted overnight.

New NATO strikes were also reported in and around Kosovo, continuing into the daylight hours today. At mid-morning, three strong detonations were heard southeast of the Kosovo capital of Pristina, Tanjug said. Air raid alerts sounded in the city.

Two missiles early today targeted the village of Lukare, northeast of Pristina, populated by Albanians, Tanjug said. The airport at Slatina, pounded by a wave of strikes all week, was hit again, it said.

The presence on Kosovo’s roads of huge refugee columns like the one hit Wednesday could signal a final push by Serb forces to rid the disputed province of its ethnic Albanian majority.

Macedonia took in 3,000 more ethnic Albanians Wednesday, and thousands more were streaming over the border today. Officials with the U.N. refugee agency said the numbers could swell to 50,000 based on refugee reports that Serbs are clearing out the region around Urosevac, 20 miles from the border.

More than 3,000 Kosovar Albanians crossed into northern Albania late Wednesday and early today. Many said they had been walking for three days and nights before finally reaching the relative safety of the border.