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A Day Later, NATO Admits to Bombing of a Civilian Vehicle

By John-Thor Dahlburg and Joel Havemann
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- BRUSSELS, Belgium

From 15,000 feet, the U.S. Air Force pilot looked down from his F-16 cockpit on the struggling columns of refugees and the flaming desolation that blotted the Kosovo landscape -- the very definition of “ethnic cleansing.”

At the end of a string of burning villages and houses, the pilot said later, he spotted what he thought were three military trucks. “I’m convinced now that’s the (Yugoslav army and police) forces working their way down ... and they’re preparing to set this next house on fire.”

He verified his target with infrared sensors. He made repeated passes over it. Then he let loose a 1,000-pound laser-guided bomb.

He hit a civilian vehicle, NATO admitted Thursday, a day after the attack.

The U.S. fighter pilot also set off the most serious crisis of confidence in NATO’s three-week-old air war to stop Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s apparent campaign of driving all the 1.8 million ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

NATO scrambled Thursday to explain what had gone wrong -- providing reporters with a tape of the unidentified pilot’s debriefing was part of that effort -- but its account raised as many questions as it answered.

Exactly where did the attack occur? How did NATO’s account of the accidental bombing of a single vehicle on a dirt road square with the video shown on Yugoslav television of many bodies and wrecked tractors and trucks on a long stretch of paved road? NATO officials shrugged and promised more answers Friday.

“What the Serbs are showing is not what we are saying,” said Col. Konrad Freytag, a NATO military spokesman.

Around 1 p.m. Wednesday, the pilot told his debriefers, he lingered over the town of Djakovica, where he spotted what he thought was a convoy of ethnic Albanians driven from their homes by the Serbs and clogging the road to the west of the town.