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Carl Savich | Columns | serbianna.com Anatomy of a NATO War Crime
The Grdelica Passenger Train Bombing
By Carl Savich
March 26, 2007

Introduction: NATO War Crime

On April 12, 1999, a NATO attack on a passenger train in Grdelica in southern Serbia killed at least 12 civilians. NATO purposely targeted civilians in this atrocity. NATO failed to suspend their attack even after it was known it was a civilian target. NATO then covered-up this war crime.

Was the Grdelica bombing a NATO war crime? The Geneva Convention of 1949, Protocol I Additional, the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict, which was adopted in 1977 and ratified by 150 countries, except the US, France, and Turkey, governs this case. The Principles of Distinction and Proportionality were violated in the Grdelica bombing. Article 48 of Protocol I requires that a distinction be made between civilian and military targets. Article 51 (4) of Protocol I prohibits “indiscriminate attacks” that endanger needlessly the lives of civilians.

Civilian passenger train bombed by NATO in Grdelica.

What are war crimes under the Geneva Conventions? Article 85 of Protocol I defined “grave breaches” as war crimes when they are committed willfully and cause death and serious injury, when civilians are the “object of attack” or when there is an “indiscriminate attack” on civilian targets. Article 8.2. (b) of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court prohibits “intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects.”

Under Additional Protocol I, a warring party is legally bound to warn civilians of imminent attack to prevent or minimize civilian casualties. NATO, on the other hand, did everything to maximize civilian casualties. NATO used cluster bombs extensively in the 1999 attack against Yugoslavia. Cluster bombs are meant to cause as much human suffering and carnage as possible. Cluster bombs were used in the NATO attack on Nis on May 7 that destroyed civilian districts of the city and killed and injured civilians. Although cluster bombs are not banned under international law, they are highly controversial because they are meant to cause as much injury and death as possible, especially to innocent civilians and bystanders. Cluster bombs present a high risk of violating the prohibition against indiscriminate attack when they are used because they show a total and complete disregard for human life.

NATO displayed an utter disregard for not only civilian casualties, but for the ecosystem of Kosovo as well. In Kosovo itself, 54 civilians were killed by cluster bombs and landmines. NATO fired 31,000 depleted uranium (DU) rounds by A-10 Warthog attack aircraft during the bombardment of Yugoslavia. When inhaled or ingested, DU projectiles can cause severe health problems, such as cancer. Article 35 (3) of Protocol I prohibits methods or means of warfare that would result in damage to the ecosystem or environment. Article 35 (2) prohibits “superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.” Article 36 stipulates that before an attack, the attacker must ascertain the risk involved first.

Civilian passenger train bombed by NATO in Grdelica.

The rules of distinction and proportionality were violated by NATO/US in the Grdelica bombing. No precautionary measures were taken to protect civilian lives. There is a strong presumption that NATO has committed a blatant war crime.

When NATO attacked the Yugoslav passenger train at the Grdelica bridge in the second wave, NATO violated Article 57 of the Protocol which requires an attack to be “cancelled or suspended” if the attacker is aware it is not a military target or would cause civilian losses. NATO did not do this. The passenger train was indisputably a civilian target.

NATO indiscriminately targeted Yugoslav civilians during the 1999 bombing campaign. Civilians were systematically targeted in a planned and orchestrated campaign of terror. In the Djakovica attack, NATO killed an estimated 100 Albanian civilians, the population it was ostensibly seeking to protect by means of “humanitarian” bombing. A US F-15E Strike Eagle McDonnell-Douglas, using an AGM-130 bomb, attacked Djakovica in Kosovo-Metohija on April 14, killing 75-100 Albanian civilians.

NATO began targeting Yugoslavian civilian infrastructure when bombing military targets was proving ineffective. On May 31, NATO bombed the Surdulica hospital and retirement home. Hospitals, schools, factories, bridges, power plants, water stations, television stations, were all systematically bombed by NATO aircraft.

NATO committed egregious war crimes by targeting civilians for indiscriminate attack. The Grdelica passenger train bombing was one of the most horrendous NATO war crimes committed during the 1999 attacks.

The Grdelica Bombing

On 12 April, 1999, a civilian passenger train crossing a bridge in Grdelica, southern Serbia, was hit by two NATO bombs. The attack took place in the middle of the day, in broad daylight. At least 12 civilians were killed in the attack. Their corpses were disfigured and charred and mutilated.

Charred body of civilian killed by NATO attack on train on Grdelica bridge.

The aircraft that carried out the attack against the civilian passenger train was a US F-15E, which fired two AGM-130 bombs at the train. US General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces during the bombing, misled the media about the attack. Clark told the media that only the pilot had been involved in the attack. In fact, an F-15E has a crew of two, a pilot and a weapons officer who controls the bombs that are fired. The AGM-130 bomb is initially guided by satellite. When it approaches the target, however, the pilot or weapons officer is able to guide the bomb by watching a video image of the target. Clark was covering up his role in the Grdelica war crime and atrocity.

US pilots and aircraft flew 80% of the bombing runs or sorties against Yugoslavia, which was then made up of Serbia and Montenegro. The 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia was essentially a US operation under the umbrella or cover of NATO. The bombing of Yugoslavia was perceived as the final episode of the Cold War, with the US achieving control and hegemony over Eastern Europe. Now, all of Eastern Europe had been brought under the hegemony of the “global hegemon”. Kosovo, like Bosnia before it, was not about “humanitarian interventionism” or human rights but about projecting US global geo-strategic interests. As Thomas Friedman noted, to get McDonald’s and Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken into Eastern Europe, first you needed McDonnell-Douglas, first you needed to bomb and burn civilians to pieces and to flatten cities and towns. First come the bombs, then come the burgers.

The passenger train bombed by NATO at Grdelica was an international passenger train, No. 393, which traversed a regular route between Belgrade and Thessaloniki in Greece. The civilian passenger train was directly targeted and hit by several missiles near the Grdelica gorge at 11.40 AM.

Civilian with severe injuries after NATO attack on civilian train.

The train was hit exactly at the moment it was crossing the Bistrica bridge located in the Grdelica gorge between Grdelica and Predajan. The NATO missiles struck and completely destroyed the second railway carriage of the train. Another three carriages were burned or derailed after the NATO bombardment. At least 12 civilians were reported killed in the NATO attack, including a ten year old child, while 16 passengers were injured. The bridge sustained significant damage.

How believable or plausible is it that the civilian passenger train approached the bridge just at the moment that US aircraft were targeting the bridge? The odds of it happening by chance or by accident are astronomical and implausible. This was a case of a US pilot getting his jollies and kicks by cold-bloodedly murdering and mutilating civilians. This was plain murder. The orders came from the US military commanders and political, civilian US leaders. The Grdelica bombing was a war crime committed by war criminals. No one, however, has been charged or prosecuted for this war crime.

NATO admitted that its aircraft had bombed the bridge and hit the train, but claimed that the target had been the bridge itself and that the train had been hit accidentally. At a press conference on April 13, 1999, US General Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), explained that the pilot's mission had been to destroy the railroad bridge. The NATO pilot, according to Clark, launched the weapon from a distance of several miles unaware that the train was heading towards the bridge:

Charred human remains of civilian killed by NATO in train attack.

''All of a sudden at the very last instant with less than a second to go he caught a flash of movement that came into the screen and it was the train coming in. Unfortunately he couldn't dump the bomb at that point, it was locked, it was going into the target and it was an unfortunate incident which he, and the crew, and all of us very much regret.''

Clark then gave the following account of how the pilot returned to drop another bomb on the bridge, a second attack on the same train, striking the train again, even though he had realized that he had hit the train instead of the bridge in the first attack:

''The mission was to take out the bridge.... He believed he still had to accomplish his mission. He put his aim point on the other end of the bridge from where the train had come, by the time the bomb got close the bridge was covered with smoke and clouds and at the last minute again in an uncanny accident, the train had slid forward from the original impact and parts of the train had moved across the bridge, and so that by striking the other end of the bridge he actually caused additional damage to the train.''

The video of the cockpit view of both attacks was shown at the NATO press conference on April 13. Clark was trying to peddle or sell the argument that NATO had made a “mistake” in attacking the civilian passenger train and in killing innocent civilians. Was NATO covering-up its own war crime?

Body of civilian killed by NATO in train attack.

Several months later, a German newspaper, the Frankfurter Rundschau, reported that the video of the train bombing NATO presented at the press briefing was shown at three times the actual speed, giving the erroneous and misleading impression to viewers that the civilian train was moving extremely fast. Why was the film speeded up? NATO wanted to make it appear as if the pilot did not have enough time to react to the approach of the train and was caught by surprise. What does the film show when run at the normal or regular speed? At its normal speed, the film shows that the civilian passenger train was targeted because NATO wanted to kill people, civilians. After all, what is the benefit of blowing up some concrete and steel in a bridge? Why not go after civilians? Why not blow up and dismember and mutilate some civilians? This is precisely what NATO did. NATO systematically targeted civilians. The film run at regular speed showed this unmistakably. This is why NATO tried to cover up its war crimes by clumsily and amateurishly speeding up the film. In short, NATO was attempting to hide a war crime, a premeditated and cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians.

An organized and orchestrated NATO cover-up was quickly exposed and revealed. According to press reports, the US air force attributed the speeded-up film to a “technical fault”, which they discovered months after the videotape was shown. NATO did not, however, consider it useful to disclose this information to the public after it was detected. Jamie Shea, the infamous NATO “spokesperson”, reported to Amnesty International in Brussels that responsibility for the glitch or mistake lay with an undisclosed analyst. Because of the very large volume of videotape that analysts had to examine and analyze daily during the campaign, according to Shea, the tapes were routinely speeded up to make them playable for showing. Shea claimed that the press office was to blame for clearing the videotape for public viewing by the Western media without first slowing it down to the original, actual speed.

The official NATO report of the Grdelica train attack demonstrates that the NATO pilot had instructions from his superior commanders that he was to destroy the bridge without regard for the consequent losses in civilian casualties. This rationale by NATO is consonant and consistent with Clark's own account of the rationale and motivation of the pilot. The pilot had orders to attack the bridge a second time, even after he knew and understood that civilians were being targeted. This attack, as explained by NATO itself, would violate the rules of distinction and proportionality under international law and would constitute a war crime.

Under international law, NATO was required to take precautions to ensure that no civilians would be targets. This was not done in this instance. NATO did not take sufficient precautionary measures to ensure that no civilians would be subject to death or injury in the area of the bridge, which was targeted for attack by NATO. Routine reconnaissance could have easily determined this. This determination or precautionary step was not even contemplated, let alone done.

Speeded up NATO video of train attack to cover up war crime.

Even assuming arguendo that the NATO pilot was not able to detect the presence of a civilian passenger train, the second attack against the same train demonstrates clearly and unmistakably that NATO was purposely targeting civilians in blatant violation of international law. This NATO attack was a clear-cut war crime. The second attack showed knowledge and premeditation and intent. NATO committed cold-blooded, premeditated murder against Yugoslav civilians.

The second NATO attack against the civilian passenger train violated Article 57 of Protocol I which stipulated that an attack had to “be cancelled or suspended if it becomes clear that the objective is a not a military one ... or that the attack may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life... which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

Amnesty International contacted NATO on April 15, 1999, requesting that an investigation be conducted to determine whether there was criminal culpability in the NATO attack on the civilian passenger train. NATO officials, however, dismissed the accusations, claiming that they were unaware that a second bomb was even dropped on the train.  NATO explained the bombing as another “technical problem” or “technical fault”.

US Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut admitted openly that Serbian civilians were purposely targeted. Lieberman justified the NATO attacks on Serbian civilians and civilian infrastructure, such as power grids and water supply stations, as necessary “to bring the war in Kosovo home to the people, the civilians”:

“That’s what we have been doing for the last couple of months. We’re not only hitting military targets. Otherwise, why would we be cutting off the water supply and knocking out the power stations, turning the lights off? We are trying, through the air campaign, to break the will of the Serbian people, so they will force their leader to break his will…”

Lieberman, a staunch supporter and backer of the Albanian separatists and secessionists, introduced the “Kosova Self-Defense Act” on April 21, 1999 to give the KLA $25 million to arm and train to create an independent country of “Kosova”, what the Kosovo conflict was actually about, secession and separatism.

NATO aircraft were regarded as the KLA’s air force during the bombing, using the KLA terrorist group as a proxy army. In a May 21, 1999 “friendly fire” attack on Koshare, an Albanian base inside Kosovo, 7 KLA were killed by NATO and 25 injured. This friendly fire incident revealed the intricate links between NATO/US and the KLA separatist group. KLA military operations and intelligence were coordinated with NATO. The KLA had satellite fax links to NATO where they fed NATO information on Serbian targets, providing NATO crucial targeting information and data. The KLA functioned as the proxy ground force for NATO.

The destroyed civilian train after NATO bombing.

Amnesty International concluded that NATO forces did “commit serious violations of the laws of war leading in a number of cases to the unlawful killings of civilians.”

Prominent legal scholars and authorities on international law condemned the NATO bombing. Canadian law professor Michael Mandel described the bombing campaign “as a coward’s war . . . not even partially legitimized by the Security Council of the United Nations”. Mandel concluded that the NATO bombing was illegal and thus criminal. Who would be able to prosecute NATO or the US for war crimes? Might made NATO right. When push comes to shove, it all boils down to relations of power. Might, indeed, does make right. NATO was making that dictum abundantly clear for all to see.

Jeremy Scahill, of Democracy Now!, interviewed Wesley Clark on January 24, 2004, when Clark was running for US President, about the NATO attack on the Grdelica passenger train:

JEREMY SCAHILL: On April 12th you targeted a passenger train, and then you showed a video that was sped up at three time the speed. Why?

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: I think -- first of all, the passenger train was not targeted. The pilot's instructions were to go after a bridge, and not the train. He felt, as he launched that missile, that all of a sudden at the very last minute, the train suddenly came into his field of view. I showed the tape. I did not know that the tape was accelerated. I don't think it was three times. I think it was one-and-a-half times. Whatever it was, it was going faster than the actual speed. It made it look like it was --

JEREMY SCAHILL: But as the Supreme Allied Commander, you are ultimately responsible for all of the information that came out.

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: That's true. I was.

JEREMY SCAHILL: What the actual in real-time speed showed is that the pilot actually moved the target so that it would hit the train.

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: Well, I don't have that information.

JEREMY SCAHILL: 12 people were killed, including an orthodox priest.

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: That's terrible. But, I don't have the information. When I looked at it, we didn't see that. All of the material was sent to The Hague and they did not see that either.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Do you think you owe the people of Serbia who died in that war an apology?

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: No, I don't because I did my duty as the commander for NATO and for the United States. I think Slobodan Milosevic owes the people of Serbia an apology, because we acted to prevent regional destabilization, and to be honest, when you take the kinds of actions that he has done, he was the proximate cause. All we tried to do was head off the ethnic cleansing through diplomacy, and basically, he had a plan to go to war, no matter what.

JEREMY SCAHILL: But now the U.S. is supporting a regime of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo where almost all minorities have been forced out, including almost every single Serb.

Clark clearly is uneasy with the US and NATO role in the Grdelica passenger train bombing. Pilots and soldiers do not make policy. Military and political commanders make policy. The decision to target Serbian civilians was made at higher levels, as a policy decision meant to terrorize the Serbian population. The bombing was a criminal, terrorist act, an act of terror against a civilian population.

Conclusion: War Crimes Without Punishment

The Gredelica bombing was a NATO war crime intended to advance US economic interests, to establish the New World Order for the “global hegemon”. Balkans “expert” Daniel Serwer, of the US government-funded US Institute of Peace, explained the rationale behind the conflict between the US and Yugoslavia:

"It's not a single person that's at issue, there's a regime in place in Belgrade that is incompatible with the kind of economy that the World Bank... has to insist on..."

President Bill Clinton himself justified the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia as advancing globalism and US economic interests:
"If we're going to have a strong economic relationship that includes our ability to sell around the world Europe has got to be the key; that's what this Kosovo thing is all about.”

Why isn’t Bill Clinton tried for war crimes? Why isn’t Wesley Clark tried for war crimes? Those responsible for war crimes should be brought to justice and prosecuted. Otherwise, respect for international law and justice is vitiated and destroyed. The Grdelica bombing in 1999 was a NATO war crime that has never been prosecuted. The Grdelica bombing is a example of a war crime without punishment.

Carl Savich
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