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War in The Balkans -

Truth may prove most useful propaganda tool

[British] The Independent, 15 April 1999

By Rupert Cornwell


Even in war, the first casualty - just occasionally - need not be the truth. Sometimes, indeed, there is no alternative to the truth. That was the lesson of Nato's bombing of the Serb train on Monday in which 10 [actually 27] civilians died.

Assuming allied planes were mistakenly responsible for yesterday's far deadlier attack on a refugee convoy in southern Kosovo, the lesson will be even more bitter.

In this war, as in every war, propaganda is a vital weapon. It is vital for the Western democracies, where strategies ultimately depend on public opinion - but it is also vital for Belgrade. By fast public relations footwork, Nato has neutralised the train disaster. If confirmed, the slaughter of refugees - 70 ethnic Albanians, according to the Serbs - will be far harder to cope with.

Convince the public the cause is just, liken the enemy to Hitler, sanitise every nastiness perpetrated by your side, and claim you are firmly on the way to victory - these are the rules of the game. Both sides have been faithfully playing them. Until the train on the bridge at Leskovac.

The affair could have been a PR disaster, proof of how the allies in their frustration at their failure to land a knockout blow to the Milosevic military machine were sinking to terror bombing of helpless civilians. Prevarication, or pretending the train was a legitimate military target, would have made matters even worse.

Instead, we witnessed a rare and deliberate show of honesty. It was an "unfortunate accident. We are all very sorry for it," Nato's supreme commander, General Wesley Clark, said as the press was shown a full cockpit video of the incident. The pilot, it transpired, had fired not one bomb, but two; the second after he knew he had hit a train. Quite why that second attack happened is unclear. But we basically know what happened, and few more questions need to be asked. If allied planes hit the refugee convoy near Djakovica [Kosovo], we must brace for a far more harrowing mea culpa from Nato - and, conceivably, a sea change in public attitudes to the air war...

Nato, of course, propagates its... brand of wishful thinking. Early on, we were told of Kosovo Albanian leaders who had been murdered. It transpired they had not and Nato, admittedly, retracted the claim. On Sunday, its spokesmen were claiming to detect fissures in the Yugoslav army's high command over President Milosevic's policy in Kosovo. The next day, despite every sign that the war is solidifying support for Milosevic, the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, was virtually predicting a coup.

But these are small errors, set against the giant shadow cast over everything the allies say by the miscalculation with which the war started. A few days, they said, just a handful of cruise missiles, before the dictator came to his senses.

"We always knew this would be a long haul," Nato now insists. If so, then everything it implied, if not said aloud, before 24 March was nonsense. But did not World War One begin with the blithe conviction the boys would be home for Christmas?

So far, Western public opinion doubts about the air war strategy have been submerged by the flood of [fabricated] horror stories of pillage, rape and murder committed by the Serbs. But these stories, too, could in turn be submerged by the horror of what apparently happened near the Kosovo town of Djakovica.

For the Serbs, the carnage was a propaganda coup [?]: a "crime against humanity" according to the Foreign Ministry in Belgrade - exactly the language used by Nato leaders to describe Mr Milosevic's tactics.

The attack strikes at the heart of the weakness of Nato's presentation of the war - not lies over daily events, but the fog of confusion and contradictions surrounding the war's ends. Suddenly Kosovo is acquiring the reek of Vietnam.

"We will win the war," say Blair, Clinton et al, day after successive day of bombing targets that never seem to be destroyed the first time around. Ah, but the bombing is working, they insist, only to order another 300 aircraft to finish the job - and risk more disasters similar to yesterday's. Defying, if not the truth, at least elementary common sense, they cling to the Rambouillet formula that Kosovo remains part of Yugoslavia even after the war...
(End quote)

War in The Balkans -

The civilians pay in blood

[British] The Independent, 15 April 1999

By Robert Fisk


Blood is beginning to spatter Nato's campaign in Yugoslavia. Just under two weeks ago, it was the blood of 26 Serb civilians in the town of Aleksinac. Then on Monday, it was the blood of 27 Serb passengers - the latest figure for fatalities - on a railway train bombed by a Nato jet.

Yesterday, up to 60 Kosovo Albanian refugees were reported torn to pieces by Nato bombs in Kosovo. That phrase "collateral damage" is beginning to sound ever more obscene.

Needless to say, the Serb government is happy [???] to publicise these atrocities - just as Nato is ready and willing [and happy!?] to report every atrocity committed by Serb forces in Kosovo. But Nato's new ground rules are playing into Serbian hands.

For it is becoming clearer that somewhere - in Washington, perhaps, or Brussels or the Aviano air base in Italy - someone has decided that Serb civilians must suffer for their country's [fabricated] sins. Or that their lives can now be regarded as forfeit if they live near a barracks or an airfield or happen to be on a passenger train.

The Serb authorities - who denied the stories told by thousands of Albanian refugees of "ethnic cleansing" at the hands of Serb forces - were quite specific in their description of the slaughter of as many as 75 Albanian refugees, first near the village of Medjan, at 1.30pm, then at Bistrazin at 3pm. The Kosovo Albanians were travelling in cars and tractors, "escorted" by at least three Serb policemen. The policemen were also killed.

Did Nato believe these were Serbs driving down the roads of southern Kosovo? Or did they see military traffic and decide - as they did when they bombed a barracks 50 metres from a Belgrade hospital on Tuesday - that the risk of harming civilians was worth taking? That now seems to be Nato's policy in its bombardment of Yugoslavia.

Wesley Clark, the general who thought he could fight a war without ground troops, gave a deeply unsettling performance this week when he tried to explain the train massacre.

The pilot saw the train enter his bomb frame only at the last second, he said. But then - incredibly, knowing the train was there - he returned to fire two more missiles at the railway bridge.
(End quote)

Milosevic Responsible For All Casualties - Blair

Press Association, 14 April 1999

[British] Prime Minister Tony Blair has insisted that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic bears full responsibility for any casualties in the Kosovo conflict.

He said nothing emerging from the Serbian propaganda machine could be taken at face value, but even if refugees had been accidentally killed by Nato's air campaign, responsibility rested with the Serb leadership.

Mr Blair was speaking at the end of an emergency meeting of EU leaders in Brussels which, he said, had produced unanimous agreement that military attacks must carry on until all Nato's five demands are met.

The Prime Minister said the EU member states - all but four of which are also Nato members - were determined to beat Milosevic. "We are determined to defeat his policy of ethnic cleansing and determined that it should be seen to be defeated - and Milosevic along with it."

News of the air raid which reportedly killed dozens of Kosovo-Albanian refugees came in as the EU leaders were meeting to reaffirm Western unity over the military strategy.

Mr Blair commented: "We cannot take at face value any claim made by the Serb authorities, and anything they do they use for propaganda purposes.

"We go to extraordinary lengths to limit any civilian damage or casualties at all. Secondly, I would say to you that the responsibility for anything that happens to people in this conflict rests with Milosevic. He is the person who has brought this Nato action upon himself. He is the person responsible for causing this conflict by the appalling and evil policy of ethnic cleansing."

The Prime Minister emphasised: "We take every single measure we can to try to avoid civilian casualties. Unfortunately in a situation like this sometimes it happens, though as I say I wouldn't believe or take at face value anything the Serb authorities say."

Mr Blair said all EU leaders were agreed there can be no compromise on Nato's five principles, including the total withdrawal from Kosovo of all Serb forces and the unconditional return to their homeland of the refugees, under the protection of an international security force led by Nato.

"We are united behind those principles and we shall see them through," said Mr Blair.
(End quote)

Should the deaths of 10 civilian train passengers lead to a rethinking of the Nato bombing strategy?

Guardian, 14 April 1999


Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax and chairman of the Committee for Peace in the Balkans

Yes, I certainly think it should. It is not just this 10 who have died. There have been over 300 civilian deaths, many of them women and children. These are not the targets that Nato is supposed to be after.

The world's first "humanitarian" war has turned into a huge humanitarian disaster. What is humanitarian about the bombing of civilians on passenger trains, or car workers trying to protect their jobs by sitting-in, or by dropping cluster bombs and munitions containing radioactive depleted uranium which will ensure that thousands of the country's children Serbs and Albanians alike will suffer from disease and malnutrition long after the war is over?

I don't think that Nato can call this a successful campaign when the Kosovans have lost their country and the Serb population carries terrified children and elderly people into cellars night after night.

It is clear that Nato is intent on bombing roads, water facilities, electricity stations and factories, and a massive destruction of infrastructure. It becomes clear that a European country is being bombed into the stone age in front of our eyes.

Our only hope rests on getting some sanity into international affairs, getting the UN and the Russians involved, getting the tragic refugees home, and to stop bombing an innocent population, many of whom were marching in their thousands against Milosevic and are now behind him.

Talking, negotiation, compromise will end this madness. Not bombing.

John Pilger, war correspondent and film-maker

George Robertson claims he and Tony Blair approve every target. So who approved the bombing of a civilian railway bridge? Who approved the bombing of the Zastava car factory when Nato knew there were 10,000 protesters inside? Who approved the bombing of the centre of Pristina in Kosovo and the entirely civilian town of Novi Sad and the mining town of Aleksinac?

The children of the woman lying beneath the rubble would like to know, Secretary of State. And the parents of the Kosovan babies who will be born deformed or with leukaemia, will want to know why 'our' pilots are using depleted uranium missiles when you claim to be bombing in order to save them.

These people are expendable. They are 'collateral damage' which is a craven term invented by the Americans to disguise the slaughter in Vietnam.

What Robertson and Blair and Cook are not telling the British public is that the same US military that 'degraded' two million Vietnamese, mostly people they, too, claimed to be protecting, are about to do something similar to Serbia and Kosovo unless civilised voices are heard loud and clear and that this is the shape of wars to come.

The attack on Serbia has nothing to do with humanitarian help and everything to do with Nato demonstrating its power by disciplining an uppity tyrant who didn't obey orders. Inexcusably, that truth has been the first casualty.
(End of quote).

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Last revised: May 18, 1999