Low-flying NATO bombers destroyed a bridge between two Serbian river towns Sunday, toppling cars into the water and killing at least nine civilians in a midday strike near a crowded riverfront market, witnesses said.
The attack left six people missing in the Velika Morava River and 28 injured, officials said. Some of the victims had rushed onto the span to help people wounded by the initial strike when two more bombs hit seven minutes later, townspeople told reporters at the scene in Varvarin, 90 miles south of here.
A later airstrike wounded two European journalists and killed a driver in their convoy in Kosovo--the Serbian province where NATO is trying to halt a brutal government crackdown on ethnic Albanian civilians. Serbia is Yugoslavia's main republic.
Scenes of the wrecked bridge on television here and around the world dealt a new blow to NATO's credibility as Western leaders were pressing to isolate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from his people.
The Yugoslav government, which has been trying to rally public support for Milosevic since his indictment last week by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, seized on the apparent NATO blunder as evidence that the Western alliance's nearly 10-week-old air assault is aimed at ordinary civilians, not just their leader.
"NATO criminals picked a market day to carry out their attack," said the newscaster on state TV, noting that Varvarin's outdoor produce market stretches along the river near one end of the two-lane bridge.
In acknowledging that allied planes had attacked the bridge, NATO officials in Brussels said it was a legitimate target. The alliance has acknowledged killing civilians in at least 11 previous errant attacks but insists that all such casualties are unintentional. Yugoslav authorities say more than 240 civilians have died in those attacks.
Varvarin, a town of 5,000 people, is about 50 miles north of Kosovo. NATO says it has been bombing highways and bridges in the area to cut Yugoslav army supply lines into the province--the scene of 15 months of guerrilla war between the government and ethnic Albanian separatists.
"If it is a military target, why did they not hit it at night?" Dragoljub Stanojevic, the school principal in Varvarin, asked reporters at the scene as divers searched for victims.
Stanojevic said one of his former students, Sanja Milenkovic, 17, was wounded by the first bomb while she was walking across the bridge and died en route to a hospital.
Hundreds of people were in the market area at the time of the bombing, and many of them had just left Pentecost Sunday services at nearby St. George's Serbian Orthodox Church, witnesses said. Several cars and pedestrians were on the bridge--traveling between Varvarin and Cicevac--when it was first hit at 12:53 p.m., they said.
Milivoje Ciric, a priest at the church, was among those killed by the follow-up blasts. Witnesses said he had rushed to the bridge to help the wounded. His decapitated body lay in the town morgue with those of six other men killed by the blast and that of a woman who drowned.
The bombs, launched by planes visible from the ground, sent about three-fourths of the bridge's metal structure crashing into the river and shattered windows in the church, a hotel, a row of riverside cottages and Varvarin's town hall.
Sunday's bombing signaled an increase in daylight raids as NATO pressed its campaign to force Milosevic's estimated 40,000 troops from Kosovo. A series of detonations shook Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, at midmorning Sunday as NATO planes struck at nearby military targets.
Bombing on the 68th day of NATO's air war also destroyed 10 houses in the Serbian town of Vranje, killing a 60-year-old man and wounding 30 other people, according to the official Yugoslav news agency, Tanjug, which reported six civilians killed by bombing Saturday.
In Kosovo, Tanjug said a two-car convoy of journalists "came under NATO fire" Sunday afternoon on a road about six miles outside Prizren.
A 28-year-old Serb driving one of the cars was killed, it said, and two journalists were wounded. One was identified as Eve-Ann Prentice of the Times of London, and the other was identified only as a reporter for Corriere della Sera of Milan, Italy. A French writer, Daniel Schiffer, also was wounded, the report said.
Early today, there were unconfirmed reports that NATO warplanes struck a sanatorium in Surdulica in southeastern Serbia, killing at least 10 people, the official Radio Serbia network said.
An errant NATO missile killed at least 20 civilians in the town in late April.
NATO is demanding deployment of an alliance-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo to ensure the safe return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians purged from the province this spring.
Milosevic and four top aides were indicted last week for their role in that campaign. The U.N. tribunal in The Hague accused them of murder, mass deportations and other crimes.
Instead of hardening his position, as some Western leaders had predicted, Milosevic offered a compromise Friday. He said he would accept a mixed peacekeeping force made up of commanders and troops from neutral countries and from NATO.
He also reportedly agreed, in talks Friday with Russian envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, to withdraw all but about 5,000 of his troops from Kosovo--less than half the number he once insisted on leaving there.
Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian deputy premier who speaks for hard-liners in Milosevic's ruling circle, said Sunday for the first time that he would accept foreign troops on Yugoslav soil "if that's the price of ending the war."
As Russia held a special Cabinet meeting Sunday to review progress toward a settlement in Kosovo, Pope John Paul II asked for peace, saying the human tragedy in the Balkans marks "a heavy defeat for humanity."
Western leaders, who ignored the pope's Easter appeal for a bombing pause, took Belgrade's latest concession as a sign of weakness and said the bombing will continue until Milosevic capitulates.
U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, said the air assault has brought about a "very major change in the tone of the pronouncements from Belgrade," setting off "frantic diplomatic efforts for a bombing pause."
The Yugoslav leader is "not the same President Milosevic who refused" negotiations with NATO last winter, Clark said on CNN's "Late Edition" program.
Political opposition leaders and neutral observers in Belgrade say there have been no signs that the public, or Milosevic's coterie, is inclined to try to curtail his power. The two men in the best position to stage a coup, Yugoslav army commander Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic and Serbian Interior Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic, were indicted with him.
"Anti-American and anti-NATO feeling is so strong here that no Serb is likely to see this [indictment] as a just cause," said Aleksa Djilas, a prominent Belgrade historian and critic of the government. He said blunders like Sunday's attack on the bridge are likely to deepen that sentiment.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Below are some NATO bombing mistakes and missile attacks against unintended targets since the alliance's air war on Yugoslavia began March 24. The casualty figures come from Yugoslav authorities and cannot be independently confirmed.
April 5 -- An attack on a residential area in the mining town of Aleksinac kills 17 people.
April 12 -- NATO missiles striking a railroad bridge near the Serbian town of Grdelica inadvertently hit a passenger train, killing 17.
April 14 -- 75 ethnic Albanian refugees die in an attack on a convoy near Djakovica.
April 27 -- A missile strike in the Serbian town of Surdulica kills at least 20 civilians.
May 1 -- A missile hits a bus crossing a bridge north of Pristina, killing 47.
May 7 -- A cluster bomb attack damages a marketplace and the grounds of a hospital in Nis, killing at least 15.
May 8 -- Fighter pilots using outdated maps attack the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three journalists and injuring 20 other people.
May 13 -- 87 ethnic Albanian refugees are killed and more than 100 injured in a late-night NATO bombing of a Kosovo village, Korisa.
May 20 -- At least three people are killed when NATO missiles hit a hospital near a military barracks in Belgrade.
May 21 -- NATO bombs a Kosovo jail, killing at least 19 people and injuring scores.
May 21 -- One Kosovo Liberation Army guerrilla is killed and at least 15 injured in an attack on a stronghold of the rebel force.
Sunday -- NATO missiles slam into a bridge crowded with market-goers and cars in central Serbia, killing at least nine people and wounding 28. In southern Kosovo, a NATO missile attack reportedly occurs near a convoy of journalists, killing a local driver and wounding three people.
Source: Associated Press
Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Maura Reynolds in Moscow contributed to this report.
* DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO: The Serbs are arming the minority of loyal ethnic Albanians to fight the rebel army. A6