NATO warplanes returned to the skies over northwestern Bosnia on Saturday to take a second swipe at repaired Serb air defenses, and U.N. officials acknowledged for the first time that their attacks had probably killed Serb civilians.
Serb air defenses in northwestern Bosnia had been among the first targets when NATO airstrikes began Aug. 30 in retaliation for the deadly Serb shelling of a Sarajevo market-place.
But the bombardment quickly shifted to the Sarajevo area, and the Serbs have managed to switch to backup systems or repair those damaged by the air raids, said Trevor Murray, a British officer with NATO in Naples, Italy.
Early Saturday, NATO “expanded attacks” in northwestern Bosnia, focusing on air defense systems and strategic bridges, Murray said.
The alliance had planned five waves of attacks through Saturday evening, but was forced to call them off before daybreak because of bad weather, said Maj. Buster Hows, a U.N. spokesman.
The Serbs fired six surface-to-air missiles at NATO jets some 40 miles northwest of Sarajevo, U.N. spokesman Jim Landale said. No airplanes were hit.
The Serbs claimed the attacks on bridges would prevent the wounded from reaching hospitals and accused NATO of targeting civilians. Serb media have claimed NATO has killed between 100 and 200 civilians.
Murray acknowledged the bombing of bridges would affect the lives of civilians, but said the alliance knows of no “significant collateral damage,” a euphemism for civilian deaths and damage to civilian facilities.
But the United Nations, whose forces have backed up the airstrikes with mortar and artillery attacks from the hills around Sarajevo, acknowledged for the first time that its gunners apparently killed Serb civilians.
British 105-mm guns and French 120-mm mortars fired 39 shells at a missile launcher near Sarajevo, and one or more shells apparently over-shot their target, said Lt. Col. Chris Vernon, a U.N. spokesman.
Bosnian Serb media had said the shelling hit a hospital 2-1/2 miles west of Sarajevo, killing 10 patients and staff and wounding 22 more. The United Nations did not confirm hitting the hospital, but said it appeared to have hit civilians.
“It does appear that we missed our target and civilians were killed,” U.N. spokesman Maj. Guy Vinet said Saturday.
Bosnian Serb television did not broadcast images of the hospital, and Vinet said the United Nations was refused permission to inspect the area.
A doctor on Bosnian Serb television, Miodrag Lazic, claimed there were no military targets near the hospital, but U.N. officials said the Serbs had fired a shoulder-launched missile at NATO jets on Friday from several hundred yards away.
The U.N. “rapid reaction force,” made up of British, French and Dutch gunners, has fired more than 1,200 shells at Serb guns around Sarajevo since the airstrikes started.
The Serbs have claimed since the start of the attacks that civilians were being killed, but until Saturday NATO and U.N. officials had said there was no evidence of that.