|4/14/99- By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON -- NATO officials admitted responsibility for an accidental convoy bombing that resulted in the deaths of 64 ethnic Albanian Kosovar refugees.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said the alliance regrets the deaths and stressed that planners and aircrews are doing everything possible to minimize innocent civilian casualties.
Defense Secretary William Cohen also expressed regret for the loss of life and outlined the incident while testifying April 15 before the Senate Armed Service Committee. "This was not a case of an isolated aircraft going after a convoy unrelated to the air campaign itself," he said. "It was part of a two-hour air campaign, during which time the missions of the NATO air force was being carried out, attacking a variety of sites.
"There was, in fact, a convoy that was spotted, and apparently the pilot went after that convoy." During his attack, the pilot encountered anti-aircraft artillery fire and man-portable air defense missiles. Cohen said there is some confusion over whether Serb forces were mixed in with the civilian convoy.
"We have to make a determination whether or not Serb forces were intermingled with the civilians that they were forcing out of Kosovo itself," Cohen said.
He asked the committee to remember the pilots are traveling at 400, 500 miles per hour, or faster, and "having to make split- second determinations under very extraordinary circumstances where they are being fired at by triple-A fire and surface-to- air missiles." He said the U.S. military and NATO is going to extraordinary lengths to reduce the risk to innocent civilians.
Throughout the three weeks of the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, U.S. officials have been stressing the precautions pilots and aircrews take before dropping their bombs. Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, vice director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff, said most of the weapons used to date are precision-guided. Accurate air strikes lessen the need for follow-up missions, the risks to Allied Force pilots, and the chances of collateral damage, he said.
Up through April 14, NATO aircraft have flown more than 6,000 sorties in support of Operation Allied Force. The first of 82 aircraft requested April 9 by the supreme allied commander Europe, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, have started to arrive. Twenty-four F-16CJs from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., arrived at Aviano April 15. Four A-10s from Pope AFB, N.C., arrived April 15at Gioia del Colle, an air base south of Aviano. Six EA-6Bs are scheduled to arrive at Aviano April 16 from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, Wash., and Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, N.C.
"There were 41 tankers set to deploy, but because of the efficiencies of our tanker operations, we've been able to reduce that to 38 tankers," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said April 14. There will be 33 KC-135s and five KC-10s deployed.
Bacon said plans for a reserve call-up are still working their way through the bureaucracy. "The numbers that have been reported are a call-up of several thousand, and I'd say that's probably going to be low," Bacon said. "But there will be a reserve call-up; it will involve primarily Air Force people and some Army people to fill in specialties that exist only or primarily in the reserves."