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NATO Plane Mistakenly Hits Bulgarian Suburb

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A NATO warplane inadvertently fired a missile into a suburb of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, heightening concerns about the accuracy of the alliance air campaign only a day after a laser-guided bomb fell short of its target and killed civilians in southern Yugoslavia.

Despite the errant air-to-ground HARM missile that destroyed an empty house 30 miles from the border with Yugoslavia late Wednesday, NATO officials claimed a successful day of airstrikes against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s still-vast arsenal.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials also said several days of attacks near Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, showed the limits of the alliance’s deference toward the smaller Yugoslav republic, whose pro-Western leaders oppose Milosevic.

“While NATO strongly supports the democratic government in Montenegro, we have no choice when it comes to protecting the security of our forces and disabling the capacity of military assets that support the campaign of repression of Belgrade in Kosovo,” NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told reporters, noting that the Yugoslav regime had been using the Podgorica airfield as a hiding place for military hardware.

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The latest NATO raids came as U.S., Russian, German and U.N. diplomats scurried around Europe in search of a coordinated approach on a negotiated solution, with Moscow’s special envoy for the Balkans airing what he said was a new proposal. But all acknowledged that prospects for peace remain distant.

In other developments in the Balkan crisis:

* NATO forces early today struck the headquarters of the Yugoslav army and the federal Interior Ministry, in the alliance’s strongest attack on the center of Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, news reports said. Witnesses said missiles also hit a residential district, injuring four people and damaging two houses. Other targets near Belgrade reportedly were under fire, including an oil refinery. In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, two loud explosions were heard shortly after midnight.

* Yugoslavia filed accusations with the World Court in The Hague that 10 NATO states were violating international law with the airstrikes. Going before the U.N.'s highest judicial body, Yugoslavia demanded an immediate end to the bombardment. The White House and State Department dismissed the move as “absurd.”

* The Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived in Belgrade with a delegation of religious leaders on a mission to win freedom for three U.S. soldiers who were captured March 31. He said he hoped to meet with Milosevic as well as the POWs. The Clinton administration has urged him to tell Milosevic that there can be no link between a halt in NATO’s airstrikes and the release of the soldiers.

* More than 6,500 refugees arrived in Macedonia on Thursday, the third day in a row that the tide of refugees has increased. Three refugees, including a 12-year-old girl, were killed when a mine exploded as they attempted to cross from Kosovo northwest of Blace, Macedonia, according to U.N. and Macedonian reports.

* In Greece, anti-NATO protesters held up a trainload of British troops and military equipment headed for neighboring Macedonia, then fooled another convoy passing through Salonika by switching road signs and diverting the trucks and all-terrain vehicles in the wrong direction.

* U.N. officials fear that many or most of about 200 ethnic Albanian men pulled from columns of fleeing ethnic Albanians by Yugoslav forces on Tuesday were later slain. Refugees crossing into Albania later reported seeing more than 100 bodies near the Kosovo villages of Meja and Oriza. “If this is correct, it would be one of the single biggest atrocities” of the conflict, said Ray Wilkinson of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

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* On Capitol Hill, the House Appropriations Committee approved by a voice vote a $12.9-billion spending package that not only helps pay for the Kosovo air campaign but also boosts military pay and readiness. It was more than twice the $6 billion requested by President Clinton. The full House is expected to vote on the package next week. The Senate is working on a similar spending bill.

* Also in Washington, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered 10 more B-52 bombers to join in the NATO air campaign. At a news conference, Cohen indicated that the heavy bombers for the most part will probably drop “dumb” bombs--so called because they fall without the help of any guidance system--on troop concentrations in Kosovo. Earlier in the conflict, B-52s were used primarily to fire precision cruise missiles, but the Pentagon inventory of those weapons is running low.

Analysts Say Serbs May Be to Blame

The wayward HARM missile that struck near Sofia was fired in self-defense at an active Yugoslav radar facility near the border with Bulgaria when the alliance warplane detected that it had been locked on to by a surface-to-air rocket launcher, NATO spokesman Shea said.

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Alliance officials said the incident was still being investigated, but other analysts familiar with the HARM system speculated that Yugoslav forces might have deliberately provoked the strike near the border, then turned off the radar signal that the missile was following to its intended target. Without the guidance of an active signal, the missile would have flown the length of its 30-mile range before falling.

“The missile strayed from its target and unintentionally landed in Bulgaria,” Shea said, adding that apologies had been made to the Bulgarian government, which has largely been supportive of NATO’s war effort.

“Obviously, Bulgaria knows fully well that this was a mishap, it’s an accident,” Shea said. “Thankfully, there were no casualties from this, but obviously we regret any damage to civilian property that may have occurred.”

The HARM missile attack was the latest of six embarrassing accidents for the alliance and came only 24 hours after at least one NATO bomb blasted the town of Surdulica, about 50 miles from Sofia on the Yugoslav side of the border. Yugoslav officials said at least 16 civilians died in the Surdulica blast.

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The airstrikes Wednesday and Thursday on Podgorica were deemed effective by NATO, but they threatened to undermine the Montenegrin leadership that has sought to distance itself from Yugoslavia’s war with NATO.

“Unfortunately, the NATO air force, even today, acted on targets in Montenegro,” Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic said Thursday. “We don’t know the reasons. . . . I regret it very much and express sincere disappointment.”

Djukanovic renewed an earlier appeal for NATO to stop its bombing of Yugoslavia and for Milosevic to abandon “the totally wrong politics of conflict with the whole world.”

Attacks against the Podgorica airport Wednesday, which included the use of what appeared to be cluster bombs, claimed the first civilian death from NATO airstrikes in Montenegro. Paska Juncaj, 61, a woman who lived near the airport, was hit in the head by shrapnel, authorities said. Three civilians were reported injured.

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The Yugoslav army, which has a heavy presence in the airport area, does not report casualties or damage, and has not allowed reporters to view destruction at the airport.

Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Dragisa Burzan said he was told that NATO attacked the airport while planes were being prepared for flight.

“It fits into the pattern we have seen from the beginning,” Burzan said. “It means NATO picks only military targets. That is very important. In Serbia, they hit whatever might be used by the military. Here it’s only military targets. This time evidently was a slight miss.”

Any bombing of Montenegro, however, plays into the hands of the pro-Milosevic opposition to the republic’s reformist government, Burzan said.

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The airstrikes hit several planes, fuel storage tanks and antiaircraft defenses, NATO officials claimed, and they insisted that the airport is close enough to the Albanian border to pose risks for NATO pilots operating in that neighboring country.

Annan Praises Russia’s Efforts

On the diplomatic front in the war now in its sixth week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told NATO that it will need the involvement of the world body to end the conflict.

“Whatever solution one finds must be legitimized through the United Nations Security Council,” Annan said after a long day of meetings with Russian and NATO officials in Moscow.

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Annan praised the “strenuous and important” efforts Russia is making to mediate a peace deal for the Balkans.

Russia’s Balkans envoy, former Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, continued his efforts to find a peace formula, seeking ideas and support from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Bonn. Chernomyrdin, who heads to Belgrade today, has insisted that the two sides’ positions are not irreconcilable.

However, Russia continues to support the Yugoslav position that the first step in any solution must be an end to the aerial bombardments, while NATO insists that Yugoslavia must first withdraw its forces from Kosovo, where police and army units have driven most of the province’s 1.8 million ethnic Albanians from their homes.

Chernomyrdin has been trying to win Western support for the idea of deploying a U.N.-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo once the fighting has come to an end--a plan unacceptable to the Western allies, who fear that Kosovo refugees will be too frightened to return home without a dominant presence of NATO forces to protect them.

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Milosevic has hinted that he might accept peacekeepers from countries other than NATO, but other Yugoslav leaders have publicly vowed to never let an armed foreign force into the province they consider the cradle of their nation.

Chernomyrdin said there was “no breakthrough, but movement” toward a common approach to take to Belgrade, and he repeated Moscow’s view that the bombing must stop first.

Meanwhile, President Boris N. Yeltsin sent another signal that Russia perceives the NATO bombardment as a threat, ordering his armed forces to accelerate the production of tactical nuclear weapons.

Vladimir V. Putin, head of the Federal Security Service, denied that the move was tied to the conflict in the Balkans, but it comes a few days after Moscow announced that the NATO campaign had made it necessary for Russia to reconsider its defense strategy.

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No Immediate Plans for Airdrops

With no sign that the fighting will end soon, concern is mounting over the health and sustenance of more than 800,000 displaced Kosovo Albanians rousted from their homes by Serbian gunmen but unable to leave the beleaguered province to take refuge in Macedonia or Albania.

NATO officials are considering means of getting food and other aid to the trapped Kosovo Albanians, but the alliance has no immediate plans to organize airdrops because of security and other concerns, Shea said.

“We haven’t dismissed the idea--far from it. The military are still looking at planning and various options,” Shea said.

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C-130 cargo planes were used to drop food to refugees displaced during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but they flew over less heavily defended territory. They must fly too low and too slowly to operate safely, and the scale of the problem defies resolution without an enormous number of aircraft, Shea said.

“The best way of achieving the result, obviously, is to stop the violence,” Shea said.

*

Times staff writers Norman Kempster in Washington, Richard Boudreaux in Belgrade, Maura Reynolds in Moscow, T.C. Miller in Skopje, Macedonia, David Holley in Podgorica and Marc Lacey in Kukes, Albania, contributed to this report. Christian Retzlaff in The Times’ Berlin Bureau also contributed.

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Missile Mishap

An errant NATO air-to-ground HARM missile hit a suburb of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, destroying an empty house. The incident happened a day after a laser-guided bomb fell short of its target and killed civilians in Surdulica, Yugoslavia. NATO said the wayward HARM missile was fired in self defense at an active Yugoslav radar facility near the Bulgarian border after the allied jet detected that it had been locked on to by a surface-to-air rocket launcher. Analysts familiar with the HARM system speculated that Yugoslav forces might have deliberately provoked the strike near the border then turned off the radar signal that the missile was following to its intended target.

AGM-88A HARM: (high-speed anti-radiation missile): Homes in on enemy ground-defense radar signals, has a 50-mile range and carries a 145-lb high-explosive warhead.

1. F-16 locks on to beam from ground radar.

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2. F-16 releases HARM missile in self-defense.

3. Radar is turned off either deliberatelyor unintentionally.

4. Missile explodes target.


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