News 12 Jun 15

NATO Chief ‘Sincerely Regrets Civilian Deaths’ in 1999 Bombing

Jens Stoltenberg’s statement of regret over the loss of civilian lives during the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia provokes mixed reaction in Montenegro.

Dusica Tomovic
BIRN
Podgorica
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks in Podgorica, Montenegro. Photo by Risto Bozovic/AP.

The loss of all lives in 1999 was a tragedy, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday during a visit to the Montenegrin capital Podgorica.

"I deeply regret everything that happened. I want to express my condolences to the families and all those who lost loved ones in 1999," Stoltenberg told a press conference after meeting Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.

The purpose and aim of the NATO air campaign was to protect civilians, and in that regard the alliance succeeded, he added.

"We made every possible effort to prevent the loss of innocent lives, the loss of civilians. But, unfortunately, in this particular case, we could not avoid it. Innocent people were killed and that is why we sincerely regret it," Stoltenberg said.

He is the first NATO chief to publicly express regret over the deaths of more than 500 civilians killed during the 78-day bombing campaign.

The NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia were launched in March 1999 in a bid to end Belgrade’s military campaign in Kosovo. It was the first time that the Western military alliance used force without UN Security Council backing.

Six civilians including three children were killed in a NATO air strike on a bridge in the village of Murino in Montenegro on April 30 1999.

Mixed reaction

Supporters of Montenegro's proposed membership of NATO, political parties and NGOs, welcomed what they called ‘Stoltenberg’s apology’ for civilian casualties, particularly given opponents of membership use the casualties as their strongest anti-NATO argument.

Security expert and the director of the NGO Alpha Center Aleksandra Dedovic said that the Montenegrin public needed to hear an apology from the highest state officials, who have never done such thing since the NATO bombing in 1999.

"Aside from the regret expressed, I hope that in talks with Montenegrin officials, the NATO chief was concrete in terms of the obligations Montenegro needs to fulfill if it wants to join the alliance by the end of the year," Dedovic told Balkan Insight.

However, the Montenegrin Movement for Neutrality considered Stoltenberg's words to be little more than a ploy to boost the low level of support for NATO membership in the country.

"His quasi-apology only serves as a desperate attempt to raise very low public support, otherwise NATO officials would have apologised and expressed regret 16 years ago. It is just a calculated move," the organisation said in a statement.

Podgorica has pushed to join the alliance since it split from a loose ‘state union’ with Serbia in 2006. It obtained a Membership Action Plan in 2009, which is regarded as a step towards joining.

But NATO remains a controversial issue in Montenegro on account of the alliance's role in forcing Serbian troops out of the former Serbian province of Kosovo in 1999.

Public support for NATO membership remains low, according to opinion polls. The government claims 46 per cent of Montenegrins support membership, but opposition parties and NGOs believe that figure is much lower, at around 35 per cent.

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