London (CNSNews.com) - The United States and Britain deny a report published here Sunday claiming that NATO intentionally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, because the mission was passing information to the Serbian army during the Kosovo war.
Britain's Observer newspaper cited unidentified military sources in the United States and Europe as confirming that the decision to bomb the building was made after NATO discovered the Chinese embassy was "sending army signals to [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's forces."
At the time of the May 7 missile strike, which killed three Chinese nationals, the United States called the bombing a tragic mistake, resulting from the use of an "outdated map," according to US Defense Secretary William Cohen. The Chinese moved their embassy to a different location in Belgrade in 1996, something that was not reflected on CIA maps used to draw up missile targets, according to the Clinton administration.
The incident prompted angry street protests in Beijing and a major diplomatic row. China reacted coolly to US apologies and suspended trade talks with the Clinton administration in protest. Those negotiations have recently resumed, and President Jiang Zemin begins a state visit to Britain later today.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told CNN the Observer report was "balderdash," and she repeated that the bombing was accidental. She confirmed, however, that there was information the Chinese had been using the mission for "intelligence activities."
Her British counterpart, Robin Cook, dismissed the report as "a rather wild story" with no evidence to support it.
"The idea that the United States has been sitting on a good explanation for all these months but sought not to share it is, I'm afraid, a delusion," he told British television.
"The United States have been through their records exhaustively, in detail. They have done a full presentation to China and also to their allies. It was a tragic mistake. It was an error that should never have happened."
Unnamed military officers quoted in the Observer report said NATO was aware by April that the Chinese Embassy was rebroadcasting communications for the Yugoslav army after transmitters at Milosevic's Belgrade residence had been damaged by NATO air-raids.
"The Chinese were also suspected of monitoring the cruise missile attacks on Belgrade, with a view to developing effective counter-measures against U.S. missiles," it continued.
According a NATO flight control officer, a map showing places where bombing was to be avoided - places such as diplomatic missions, hospitals and churches - did exist, and it included the Chinese Embassy at its current site.
NATO argued that the maps it used showed the embassy at its pre-1996 location, and that the building it targeted was thought to have housed a Yugoslav weapons-buying directorate.
Analysts agreed the incident could not have occurred at a worse time, as a Russian initiative aimed at ending the seven-week old war - which would require UN Security Council approval - appeared to be bearing fruit.
Russia and China, both Security Council members, led opposition to the NATO campaign, whose aim was to end Milosevic's campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians.