On May 7, 1999, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (Operation Allied Force), five US Joint Direct Attack Munition guided bombs hit the People’s Republic of China embassy in the Belgrade district of New Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists and outraging the Chinese public. According to the U.S. government, the intention had been to bomb the nearby Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement. President Bill Clinton later apologized for the bombing, stating it was accidental. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet testified before a congressional committee that the bombing was the only one in the campaign organized and directed by his agency, and that the CIA had identified the wrong coordinates for a Yugoslav military target on the same street. The Chinese government issued a statement on the day of the bombing, stating that it was a “barbarian act”.
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‘s 509th Bomb Wing flying directly out of Whiteman AFB, Missouri. 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 440 m (480 yd) 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) who worked for the Xinhua News Agency, and Xu Xinghu (许杏虎) and his wife Zhu Ying (朱颖) who worked for Guangming Daily, and 27 injuries.
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 ambassador to the UN 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”.
Large demonstrations erupted at consular offices of the United States and other NATO countries in China in reaction to news of the bombing. On May 9, 1999, then vice-president Hu Jintao delivered a national televised speech condemning the “barbaric” and “criminal conduct” of NATO, 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 Sasserand 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 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.
For a week, President Jiang Zemin declined phone calls from President Bill Clinton, eventually accepting a 30-minute apology call on Friday, May 14, in which Clinton expressed “regret” over the incident. Jiang had chosen to leave US-China leadership communications channels unused as he waited for the Politburo Standing Committee to reach a consensus. The time it took for the Politburo to gather necessary information and reach a decision about China’s responses motivated Party leadership to revisit a proposal to establish a centralized National Security Commission, although this was ultimately not implemented.
By the end of 1999, relations began to gradually improve. In August, the U.S. government made a “voluntary humanitarian payment” of $4.5 million to the families of the three Chinese nationals who were killed and to the 27 injured in the bombing. On December 16, 1999, the two governments reached a settlement under which the United States agreed to pay $28 million in compensation for damage to the Chinese Embassy facility, and China agreed to pay $2.87 million in compensation for damage inflicted to the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic facilities in China.
Official investigation and reporting in the aftermath
Late on May 8, US Defense Secretary William Cohen 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 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 buildings were 180 m (200 yd) apart, which was less than half of the measured[by whom?]distance.
Media criticism focused on the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), which 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”.CIA Director George Tenet later acknowledged that the map used should never have been used for aerial bombing target selection.
Official State Department account
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, not related to the method of resection and intersection.
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 200 m (220 yd) 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.
This account did not draw a connection between the use of an old map and the targeting of the embassy and did not address the reason that target authorization listed the objective as a warehouse instead of 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, giving evidence the same day, stated that “NIMA is not at fault”.
Few Chinese politicians believed the US version of events, believing instead the strike had been deliberate.
Former ambassador Li Daoyu 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.
The incident left a toxic legacy on China-NATO relations and kept them frozen for years. In a 2011 meeting with US officials in the aftermath of the 2011 NATO attack in Pakistan, Chinese general Ma Xiaotian directly referred to the embassy bombing by asking “Were you using the wrong maps again?” Observers immediately noted the “cutting” nature of the remark, describing it as “jibing” and “priceless”.
Observer and Politiken investigation
Acting on a tip-off, Jens Holsoe of Danish newspaper Politiken contacted UK paper The Observer with a view to conducting a joint investigation. Holsoe, together with John Sweeney and Ed Vulliamy of The Observer, interviewed numerous sources including a NATO officer “serving in an operational capacity at the four-star level“, a staff-officer serving at a two-star level, 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.
According to the journalists’ investigation the embassy bombing was a deliberate attack, which is 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 (C2) center.
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 ICTYfor war crimes. NATO’s briefing of May 8, which stated Arkan’s HQ was at the Hotel Yugoslavia 500 m (550 yd) away, is consistent with this interpretation.
Representatives of NATO governments dismissed the investigation. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described it as “balderdash” and UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cooksaid 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 informed letter-writers by post that the Times hadn’t found evidence to support the allegations. The Times didn’t contact the authors or their sources.
Other sources, including major American media such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune maintained that while responsibility was found in the inaccurate planning of air strikes, the attack was not deliberate. International News wires like The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France Press (AFP) published numerous reports supporting both the accidental and deliberate attack theories. The American media was criticized for devoting little attention to the incident, as well as for consistently referring to the incident as an “accidental bombing”, where China contested that belief.
A 2010 Salon article by Laura Rozen featured an interview of Washington Post columnist and former intelligence officer William M. Arkin, who was dismissive of the investigation. While acknowledging that investigators had 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.”
The Hotel Yugoslavia was attacked on May 7, but NATO was aware of its function and connection with Arkan. Arkin did not discuss the way that NATO planners could be aware of the HQ and target it successfully if they were confused about its location.
A report conducted by the ICTY entitled “Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” after the Kosovo War examined the attack on the Chinese embassy specifically and came to the conclusion that the OTP (Office of the Prosecutor) should not undertake an investigation concerning the bombing. In reaching its decision, it provided the following observations:
- That the root of the failures in target location appears to stem from the land navigation techniques employed by an intelligence officer in an effort to pinpoint the location of the FDSP (Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement) building at Bulevar Umetnosti 2. The officer used techniques known as “intersection” and “resection” which, while appropriate to locate distant or inaccessible points or objects, are inappropriate for use in aerial targeting as they provide only an approximate location. Using this process, the individual mistakenly determined that the building which we now know to be the Chinese Embassy was the FDSP headquarters.
- The United States has formally apologized to the Chinese Government and agreed to pay $28 million in compensation to the Chinese Government and $4.5 million to the families of those killed or injured. The CIA has also dismissed one intelligence officer and reprimanded six senior managers. The US Government also claims to have taken corrective actions in order to assign individual responsibility and to prevent mistakes such as this from occurring in the future.
- The aircrew involved in the attack should not be assigned any responsibility for the fact they were given the wrong target and that it is inappropriate to attempt to assign criminal responsibility for the incident to senior leaders because they were provided with wrong information by officials of another agency.
Amnesty International report
Amnesty International 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.
Future of the location
Marking the 10th anniversary of the bombing, on May 7, 2009, mayor of Belgrade Dragan Đilas and Chinese Ambassador to Serbia Wei Jinghua dedicated a commemorative plaque on the location. The author of the plaque was Nikola Kolja Milunović.
During the visit of the President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping to Serbia in June 2016, he and his Serbian counterpart Tomislav Nikolić visited the location, declared the nearby turnaround a Square of the Serbian-Chinese Friendship and announced the construction of the Chinese Cultural Center on the location of the former embassy.The construction of the center began on July 20, 2017, in the presence of mayor Siniša Mali and Chinese ambassador Li Manchang. The center will have ten floors, two below the ground and eight above, with the total floor area of 32,000 m2 (340,000 sq ft). The project will cost 45 million euros.
In 2020, the Milunović’s plaque was replaced by the new, “modest” square memorial. While the inscription on the original plaque gave explanation why it was placed there, had the date of the bombing and number of victims, the new one has a generic text, inscribed in Serbian and Chinese: As a token of gratitude to PR China for support and friendship in hardest moments for the people of the Republic of Serbia, and in memory of the killed. This sparked objections by the Belgraders, who called the new memorial “a shame” and a “table which says nothing”, asking for the reinstatement of the old plaque.
Rise of anti-Western sentiment
Given Serbia’s strong relationship with Russia over history, this had led a very catastrophic consequence, the surge of anti-Western sentiment together in Russia and China increased, serving as a prelude to the future alliance between the two countries. Both Russia and China had condemned the attack on Serbia and still saw this as a deliberate act caused by the U.S. Government, leading to the re-militarisation of both countries and the warm-up of China–Russia relations.
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