The White House is privately furious at how NATO commander General WESLEY CLARK first handled reports that one of his jets had mistakenly attacked a refugee convoy last week. Within hours of the Wednesday strike, which may have killed more than 70 ethnic Albanians, Clark told a news service he had “strong evidence” that Serb forces had fired at the refugee column. By the next day, embarrassed NATO officials admitted that their first claim was wrong and that an American F-16 had indeed attacked civilians. NATO tried to recover, releasing an audiotape of an F-16 pilot who may have struck the civilian convoy. He described how he thought he was attacking Serb military vehicles. The tape only added to the muddle. Pentagon officials, some of whom still suspect that Serb forces killed the civilians, now say that the pilot was describing another military convoy he had struck. “It wasn’t handled well,” a senior Administration aide said of NATO’s response to the tragedy. NATO knew there would be civilian casualties during the air war, and when they occurred, “we had all agreed we wouldn’t jump the gun and say things” before knowing for sure who was responsible, said the aide. Clark’s gaffe handed Belgrade a propaganda windfall: a tragic accident that became a weeklong media flap over NATO credibility.
–By Douglas Waller/Washington