NATO Bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade

NATO Bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade

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On May 7, 1999, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia
1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia
The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was NATO's military operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. The strikes lasted from March 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999...

 (Operation Allied Force
Operation Allied Force
The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was NATO's military operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. The strikes lasted from March 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999...

), five US
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 JDAM bombs hit the People's Republic of China
People's Republic of China
China , officially the People's Republic of China , is the most populous country in the world, with over 1.3 billion citizens. Located in East Asia, the country covers approximately 9.6 million square kilometres...

 embassy in the Belgrade
Belgrade is the capital and largest city of Serbia. It is located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, where the Pannonian Plain meets the Balkans. According to official results of Census 2011, the city has a population of 1,639,121. It is one of the 15 largest cities in Europe...

 district of New Belgrade
Novi Beograd
Novi Beograd or New Belgrade is the most populous municipality that constitutes the City of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It is a planned city, built in 1947 on the left bank of the Sava river which was previously an uninhabited area, opposite of the old Belgrade...

, killing three Chinese reporters and outraging the Chinese public. President Bill Clinton
Clinton is an English family name, indicating one's ancestors came from English places called Glympton or Glinton. Clinton has frequently been used as a given name in the United States since the late 19th century, probably originally in honor of DeWitt Clinton or one of his famous relatives...

 later apologized for the bombing, stating it was accidental. Central Intelligence Agency
Central Intelligence Agency
The Central Intelligence Agency is a civilian intelligence agency of the United States government. It is an executive agency and reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence, responsible for providing national security intelligence assessment to senior United States policymakers...

 director George Tenet
George Tenet
George John Tenet was the Director of Central Intelligence for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and is Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University....

 testified before a congressional committee that the bombing was the only one in the campaign organized and directed by his agency. The Chinese government maintains that the bombing was a deliberate act and has always regarded the entire Kosovo operation as an illegal war by NATO.

Sequence of events

In the days prior to the bombing, an attack folder labelled 'Belgrade Warehouse 1' was circulated for command approval. The folder originated within the CIA and described the target as a warehouse for a Yugoslav government agency suspected of arms proliferation activities. In this form, the strike was approved by President Clinton.

It is unclear if other NATO leaders approved the strike. A report by the French Ministry of Defense after the war stated that "part of the military operations were conducted by the United States outside the strict framework of NATO" and that a dual-track command structure existed. NATO had no authority over the B-2 stealth bombers that carried out the strike.

According to the CIA account, the target was checked against 'no-strike' databases but these raised no alarms; these are lists of protected sites such as schools, hospitals and places of worship. The joint Observer/Politiken investigation later reported its journalists had interviewed various NATO and US officers who had checked the databases the morning after the attack and found the embassy listed at its correct location.

On the night of May 7–8, the strike was carried out by bombers of the United States Air Force
United States Air Force
The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the American uniformed services. Initially part of the United States Army, the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on September 18, 1947 under the National Security Act of...

's 509th Bomb Wing
509th Bomb Wing
The 509th Bomb Wing is a United States Air Force unit assigned to the Air Force Global Strike Command, Eighth Air Force. It is stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri....

 flying directly out of Whiteman AFB
Whiteman Air Force Base
Whiteman Air Force Base is a United States Air Force base located approximately south of Knob Noster, Missouri; east-southeast of Kansas City, Missouri....

, Missouri
Missouri is a US state located in the Midwestern United States, bordered by Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. With a 2010 population of 5,988,927, Missouri is the 18th most populous state in the nation and the fifth most populous in the Midwest. It...

. The bombers were armed with JDAM GPS-guided precision bombs but the geographic coordinates provided by the CIA and programmed into the bombs were those of the Chinese embassy 440m (480yds) away. At around midnight local time 5 bombs landed at the location indicated, striking the south end of the embassy almost simultaneously. The embassy had taken precautionary measures in view of the ongoing bombing campaign, sending staff home and housing others in the basement, but the attack still resulted in 3 fatalities, Shao Yunhuan (邵云环), Xu Xinghu (许杏虎) and his wife, Zhu Ying (朱颖), and 20 injuries.

Chinese reaction

The raid caused a dramatic rise in tension between China and the United States. An official statement on Chinese television denounced what it called a "barbaric attack and a gross violation of Chinese sovereignty". China's UN ambassador described what he called "NATO's barbarian act" as "a gross violation of the United Nations charter, international law and the norms governing international relations" and "a violation of the Geneva convention". President Clinton attempted to telephone his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin
Jiang Zemin
Jiang Zemin is a former Chinese politician, who served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1989 to 2002, as President of the People's Republic of China from 1993 to 2003, and as Chairman of the Central Military Commission from 1989 to 2005...

, but Jiang repeatedly refused to accept his calls.

Large demonstrations erupted at consular offices of the United States and other NATO countries in China in reaction to news of the bombing broke. On May 9, 1999, then vice-president Hu Jintao
Hu Jintao
Hu Jintao is the current Paramount Leader of the People's Republic of China. He has held the titles of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China since 2002, President of the People's Republic of China since 2003, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission since 2004, succeeding Jiang...

 delivered a national televised speech condemning the "barbaric" and "criminal conduct" of NATO led by the United States, which "incited the fury of the Chinese people." He said the unauthorized demonstrations in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenyang reflected the anger and patriotism of the Chinese people, and which the Chinese government fully supported, but urged against extreme and illegal conduct.

The protests continued for several days, during which tens of thousands of rock-throwing protesters kept US Ambassador James Sasser and other staff trapped in the Beijing embassy. The residence of the US Consul in Chengdu was damaged by fire and protestors tried to burn the consulate in Guangzhou. There were no reported injuries.

President Clinton's apologies and those of the US State Department were not initially allowed to be broadcast by Chinese state-run media outlets. The demonstrations continued for four days before the Chinese government called a halt, eventually broadcasting President Clinton's apology on television and ordering the police to restrain the demonstrators. The two nations' leaders finally spoke on May 14.

By the end of 1999, relations began to gradually improve. In October 1999, the two sides reached agreement on humanitarian payments for families of those who died and those who were injured as well as payments for damages to respective diplomatic properties in Belgrade and China.

Official investigation and reporting in the aftermath

Late on May 8, US Defense Secretary William S Cohen
William Cohen
William Sebastian Cohen is an author and American politician from the U.S. state of Maine. A Republican, Cohen served as Secretary of Defense under Democratic President Bill Clinton.-Early life and education:...

 and George Tenet issued a joint press release stating neither the aircrew involved nor the equipment were to blame for the incident. The first attempt to explain the bombing came on May 10. William Cohen told reporters "In simple terms, one of our planes attacked the wrong target because the bombing instructions were based on an outdated map". The statement made no mention of the CIA. It was subsequently revealed that the CIA possessed maps showing the embassy.

While US officials then began, on the record, to deflect questions pending the outcome of further enquiries, they continued to brief journalists off the record. For example, also on May 10 Eric Schmitt
Eric P. Schmitt
Eric P. Schmitt is a Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist, widely quoted by other journalists. he writes for the New York Times....

 published an account with most of the elements that were to feature in DCI Tenet's later admissions. The officials briefed Schmitt that "the Chinese Embassy and a headquarters for a Yugoslav arms agency ... look very similar: same size, shape and height", and that the distance between the buildings was 180m (200yds), less than half the actual distance.

Media criticism focused on NIMA
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is an agency of the federal government of the United States with the primary mission of collecting, analyzing and distributing geospatial intelligence in support of national security. NGA was formerly known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency ...

, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. NIMA issued a press release to counter the attacks stating that "recent news reports regarding the accuracy of NIMA maps have been inaccurate or incomplete" and that "a hardcopy map is neither intended, nor used, as the sole source for target identification and approval."

In spite of the denials rumours began to circulate in the US military that the attack was an intentional strike.

Official State Department account

In June, Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering
Thomas R. Pickering
Thomas Reeve "Tom" Pickering , is a retired United States ambassador. Among his many diplomatic appointments, he served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1989 to 1992.-Early life:...

 led a delegation to China to present the US version of events.

According to the official account, CIA analysts knew the address of the Yugoimport office to be Bulevar Umetnosti 2 (2 Boulevard of the Arts). Using this information, they attempted to pinpoint its geographic location by using the known locations and addresses of other buildings on parallel streets as reference points. Pickering referred to this technique as intersection and resection. Though the method described does not correspond to the technical definition of either of these methods (see Resection (orientation)
Resection (orientation)
Resection is a method for determining a position using a compass and topographic map .-Resection versus intersection:...

), this may be an informal name in the military for the particular technique used.

Parallel lines were drawn from known addresses and locations on a parallel street. With this information it was attempted to reconstruct the pattern of street addresses on Bulevar Umetnosti, which was information unknown to the targeters. The pattern of street addresses on Bulevar Umetnosti was not as expected, and the targeter erroneously pinpointed the embassy "located on a small side street at some distance on Bulevar Umetnosti" from the intended target. This was not true as Ulica Tresnjevog Cveta (Cherry Blossom St, the "small side street" where the embassy was located) does not connect with Bulevar Umetnosti which ends 200m (220yds) short of the junction with Cherry Blossom St. A procedure designed to determine the coordinates of a known address on a known street produced the coordinates of a different address on a street neither a continuation of nor connected to the street targeted.

Multiple checks designed to prevent attacks on sensitive targets each failed as the location of the embassy had not been updated since the embassy moved to New Belgrade three years earlier. As a result, the bombers took to the air with the coordinates of the Chinese embassy programmed into the bombs on board.

Unlike the initial explanations, this account drew no direct causal connection between the use of an old map and the targeting of the embassy. The explanation did not address why the target authorisation listed the objective as a 'warehouse' if the actual objective was an office building.

George Tenet statement

On July 22, George Tenet made a statement before a public hearing of the House Intelligence Committee. Covering the same ground as Under Sec. Pickering's statement in China, he additionally acknowledged the target package originated within the CIA and that it was the sole CIA-directed strike of the war, stated that he had been personally unaware that the CIA was circulating strike requests and recognised that the CIA possessed maps correctly displaying the embassy. Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre
John Hamre
John J. Hamre is a specialist in international studies, a former Washington bureaucrat and the current president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a position he has held with that think tank since April 2000.-Education:Hamre is the son of Melvin Sanders and Ruth Lucile...

, giving evidence the same day, stated that "NIMA is not at fault".


"At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers," says Adm. Davor Domazet-Loso, Croatia's military chief of staff during the Kosovo war.

Chinese reaction

Few Chinese believed the US version of events, believing instead the strike had been deliberate.

Former ambassador Li Daoyu
Li Daoyu
Li Daoyu is a diplomat of the People's Republic of China.-Biography:A descendant of Li Hongzhang, Li graduated from Hujiang University in Shanghai in 1952, and entered the foreign ministry of PRC. From 1952 to 1983, he was an official of the international section of the Ministry and was promoted...

 stated "we don't say it was a decision of Clinton or the White House", but the Chinese government describes the US explanation for "the so-called mistaken bombing" as "anything but convincing" and has never accepted the US version of events.

Observer/Politiken investigation

Acting on a tip-off, Jens Holsoe of Danish newspaper Politiken
Politiken is a Danish daily broadsheet newspaper, published by JP/Politikens Hus.The newspaper comes third among Danish newspapers in terms of both number of readers and circulated copies ....

contacted UK paper The Observer
The Observer
The Observer is a British newspaper, published on Sundays. In the same place on the political spectrum as its daily sister paper The Guardian, which acquired it in 1993, it takes a liberal or social democratic line on most issues. It is the world's oldest Sunday newspaper.-Origins:The first issue,...

with a view to conducting a joint investigation. Holsoe, together with John Sweeney
John Sweeney
John Sweeney may refer to:*John E. Sweeney , U.S. Representative from New York*John Roland Sweeney , Canadian, politician and educator*John Sweeney , BBC journalist*John James Sweeney, Pennsylvania politician...

 and Ed Vulliamy
Ed Vulliamy
Ed Vulliamy is a British journalist and writer. His mother is the children's author and illustrator Shirley Hughes and his grandfather the Liverpool store owner Thomas Hughes. He was educated at the independent University College School and at Hertford College, Oxford before becoming a journalist...

 of The Observer, interviewed numerous sources including a NATO officer "serving in an operational capacity at the four-star level
4 star rank
Four-star rank is a term used to describe a very senior commander in many of the armed services holding a rank described by the NATO OF-9 code. The term is also used by some armed forces which are not NATO members...

", a staff-officer at two-star level
2 star rank
An officer of two-star rank is a senior commander in many of the armed services holding a rank described by the NATO code of OF-7. The term is also used by some armed forces which are not NATO members...

, a "very high-ranking" former US intelligence officer, a NATO flight controller at the Naples HQ for Kosovo air operations, and a US NIMA official. After a four-month investigation, they published their findings on Oct 17.

The joint investigation reported the embassy had housed a communications center and suspected electronic eavesdropping (SIGINT
Signals intelligence is intelligence-gathering by interception of signals, whether between people , whether involving electronic signals not directly used in communication , or combinations of the two...

) facility gathering intelligence on NATO weapons and equipment. NATO had been monitoring Serbian signals coming from Slobodan Milosevic
Slobodan Milošević
Slobodan Milošević was President of Serbia and Yugoslavia. He served as the President of Socialist Republic of Serbia and Republic of Serbia from 1989 until 1997 in three terms and as President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1997 to 2000...

's residence. Those signals went silent for 24 hours when that was bombed. When they re-emerged on April 24 "they came from the embassy compound". An intelligence officer told the investigators "the Chinese embassy had an electronic profile which NATO located and pinpointed".

According to the journalists' investigation the embassy bombing was a deliberate attack, a claim consistent with the pattern of strikes that night where, according to NATO's official briefing of May 8, "the focus was wholly on disrupting the national leadership" of Yugoslavia. Apart from "the FDSP weapons warehouse", every target that night was a command and control center.

The Observer/Politiken journalists quoted a NIMA source as describing the old map explanation as "a damned lie".

Regarding the no-strike databases, the report continued "the CIA and other NATO intelligence agencies, such as Britain's MI6 and the code-breakers at GCHQ, would have listened in to communication traffic from the Chinese embassy as a matter of course since it moved to the site in 1996". The flight-control officer told the journalists that "the Chinese embassy was correctly located at its current site" in the database "and not where it had been until 1996 - as claimed by the US and NATO".

The report offered no firm reason as to why China might help Milosevic but suggested Serbia might be in a position to trade having recently shot down an F-117 stealth fighter, the first stealth aircraft lost in action and the first piece of US stealth technology to fall into enemy hands.

A further report in The Observer of November 28, 1999 added more details. According to the report, American officials indicated that the reason behind the bombing of the embassy, was because they believe the embassy had provided signals facilities for Željko Ražnatović, commonly known as Arkan, a Serb paramilitary leader wanted by the ICTY for war crimes. NATO's briefing of May 8, which stated Arkan's HQ was at the Hotel Yugoslavia 500m/550yds away, is consistent with this interpretation.

A scene at the Combined Air Operations Center (COAC) at Vicenza
Vicenza , a city in north-eastern Italy, is the capital of the eponymous province in the Veneto region, at the northern base of the Monte Berico, straddling the Bacchiglione...

 on the morning of May 8 was described: "British, Canadian and French air targeteers rounded on an American colonel on the morning of May 8. Angrily they denounced the 'cock-up'. The US colonel was relaxed. 'Bullshit,' he replied to the complaints. 'That was great targeting ... we put two JDAMs down into the attache's office and took out the exact room we wanted ... they (the Chinese) won't be using that place for rebro (re-broadcasting radio transmissions) any more, and it will have given that bastard Arkan a headache.'"

Representatives of NATO governments dismissed the investigation. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Madeleine Albright
Madeleine Korbelová Albright is the first woman to become a United States Secretary of State. She was appointed by U.S. President Bill Clinton on December 5, 1996, and was unanimously confirmed by a U.S. Senate vote of 99–0...

 described it as "balderdash" and UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook
Robin Cook
Robert Finlayson Cook was a British Labour Party politician, who was the Member of Parliament for Livingston from 1983 until his death, and notably served in the Cabinet as Foreign Secretary from 1997 to 2001....

 said there wasn't a "shred of evidence to support this rather wild story".

Initially, the New York Times refused to report on the investigation until its findings could be corroborated. Subsequently, Andrew Rosenthal
Andrew Rosenthal
Andrew Rosenthal is an American journalist and editorial page editor of The New York Times. Rosenthal is in charge of the paper's opinion pages, both in the newspaper and online. He oversees the editorial board, the Letters and Op-Ed departments, as well as the Editorial and Op-Ed sections of...

 informed letter-writers by post that the Times had found no evidence to support the allegations. Although the Times' attempt to corroborate the findings did not include contacting either its authors or their sources.

Other sources, notably American media such as the Washington Post, New York Times and Chicago Tribune maintained the US government view that while culpability rested with inaccurate strike planning, the attack was not deliberate. International News wires such as The Associated Press, Reuters
Reuters is a news agency headquartered in New York City. Until 2008 the Reuters news agency formed part of a British independent company, Reuters Group plc, which was also a provider of financial market data...

, and Agence France Press (AFP) published numerous reports supporting both the accidental and deliberate attack theories. The American media was criticized for devoting very little attention to the incident, as well as for repeatedly referring to the "accidental bombing" as fact rather than as a claim contested by China.

The Observer/Politiken article was ignored by the US media for the most part. A Salon, part of Salon Media Group , often just called Salon, is an online liberal magazine, with content updated each weekday. Salon was founded by David Talbot and launched on November 20, 1995. It was the internet's first online-only commercial publication. The magazine focuses on U.S...

 article by Laura Rozen, however did feature an interview of Washington Post columnist and former intelligence officer William M. Arkin
William Arkin
William M. Arkin is an American political commentator, activist, journalist, blogger, and former United States Army soldier.-Biography:Arkin served in U.S. Army intelligence from 1974 to 1978...

, who was dismissive of the investigation. While acknowledging the investigators had indeed spoken to signals intelligence officers in NATO, Arkin told Rozen "The Chinese Embassy and the Hotel Yugoslavia, where Arkan's generals were believed to be commanding his paramilitary Tigers, are right across the street from each other, and in fact both were bombed the same night ... I think there were communications emanating from the Hotel Yugoslavia across the street. And I think that stupid people who are leaking rumors to the Observer have made that mistake."

While it is correct that the Hotel Yugoslavia was attacked on May 7, NATO was aware of its function and connection with Arkan. Arkin did not explain how NATO planners could both be aware of the HQ and target it successfully if they were confused about its location.

Amnesty International report

Amnesty International
Amnesty International
Amnesty International is an international non-governmental organisation whose stated mission is "to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated."Following a publication of Peter Benenson's...

 examined the NATO air campaign and assessed the legality of its actions. In the case of the embassy bombing Amnesty reported both on the official explanation and to the Observer/Politiken investigation without arbitrating as to which was true. NATO was criticised for continuing its bombing campaign uninterrupted when its safeguards to protect civilians were known to be faulty. A genuinely accidental attack would not imply legal responsibility, but the report stated that "the very basic information needed to prevent this mistake was publicly and widely available" and that "NATO failed to take the necessary precautions required by Article 57(2) of Protocol I" of the Geneva conventions.

See also

  • Civilian casualties during Operation Allied Force
    Civilian casualties during Operation Allied Force
    Civilian casualties as a result of Operation Allied Force were significant. Many of the people killed in the NATO airstrikes were widely reported to be civilians, both Serbs and Albanians. Human Rights Watch confirmed ninety incidents in which civilians died as a result of NATO bombing...

  • Strategic Bombardment in the Kosovo War

External links