U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade

U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade
US bombing of an embassy of the People's Republic of China in Belgrade
Location Belgrade, Serbia, Yugoslavia
Date May 7, 1999
Target Disputed
Attack type Aerial bombing
Death(s) 3
Injured 20
Perpetrator(s) United States

On May 7, 1999, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (Operation Allied Force), five US JDAM bombs hit the People's Republic of China embassy in the Belgrade district of New Belgrade, killing three Chinese reporters and outraging the Chinese public. President Bill Clinton later apologized for the bombing[citation needed], stating it was accidental. Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet testified before a congressional committee that the bombing was the only one in the campaign organized and directed by his agency.[1][2] The Chinese government maintains that the bombing was a deliberate act[3] and has always regarded the entire Kosovo operation as an illegal war by NATO.[4]


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"[5] 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 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,[6] 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

In Beijing, students (above) and residents (below) marched in protest of the bombing outside of the U.S. Embassy.
Below, candlelight vigil held to mourn the victims.

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".[7] 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".[8] President Clinton attempted to telephone his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin, but Jiang repeatedly refused to accept his calls.[citation needed]

On May 12, as riots raged outside, flags were ordered to be lowered to half-staff at US diplomatic missions throughout China.[9] "The lives of those killed and injured was secondary to the escalating tensions between the two powers," states a study of the diplomatic exchanges surrounding the affair. "The apologies demanded by the Chinese government, and whatever regrets and sorrow expressed by US officials to the families of the deceased were only incidental and, at best, pro-forma."[10]

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 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."[11] 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.[11][12]

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.[13] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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 and George Tenet issued a joint press release stating neither the aircrew involved nor the equipment were to blame for the incident.[14] 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".[15] The statement made no mention of the CIA. It was subsequently revealed that the CIA possessed maps showing the embassy.[14]

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.[14] 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.[citation needed]

Media criticism focused on NIMA, 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."[16]

In spite of the denials rumours began to circulate in the US military that the attack was an intentional strike.[17]

Official State Department account

In June, Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering led a delegation to China to present the US version of events.[18]

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)), 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.[14] 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.[1] 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".[19]


"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.[20]

Chinese reaction

Few Chinese believed the US version of events, believing instead the strike had been deliberate.[21]

Former ambassador Li Daoyu stated "we don't say it was a decision of Clinton or the White House",[22] 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.[23]

Observer/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.[24] 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 at 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.[25] 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) facility gathering intelligence on NATO weapons and equipment. NATO had been monitoring Serbian signals coming from Slobodan Milosevic'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.[26] Apart from "the FDSP weapons warehouse", every target that night was a command and control center.[26]

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.[27] 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.[26]

A scene at the Combined Air Operations Center (COAC) at Vicenza 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 described it as "balderdash" and UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said there wasn't a "shred of evidence to support this rather wild story".[28]

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 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.[25]

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.[29] International News wires such as 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 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.[30]

The Observer/Politiken article was ignored by the US media for the most part. A Salon article by Laura Rozen, however did feature an interview of Washington Post columnist and former intelligence officer William M. Arkin, who was dismissive of the investigation.[31] 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.[26] 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 examined the NATO air campaign and assessed the legality of its actions.[32] 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.[33]

See also


  1. ^ a b Tenet, George (1999-07-22). "DCI Statement on the Belgrade Chinese Embassy Bombing House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Open Hearing". Central Intelligence Agency. https://www.cia.gov/news-information/speeches-testimony/1999/dci_speech_072299.html. Retrieved 2006-10-04. 
  2. ^ Schmitt, Eric (1999-07-23). "In a Fatal Error, C.I.A. Picked a Bombing Target Only Once: The Chinese Embassy". New York Times. http://partners.nytimes.com/library/world/global/072399china-embassy.html. Retrieved 2009-10-22. 
  3. ^ "Chinese demand U.N. meeting after Belgrade embassy attacked". CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/WORLD/europe/9905/07/kosovo.05/index.html. 
  4. ^ "China condemns Nato's Kosovo policy". BBC News. 2000-06-12. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/786816.stm. 
  5. ^ Whitney, Craig (1999-11-11). "U.S. Military Acted Outside NATO Framework During Kosovo Conflict, France Says". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/11/11/world/us-military-acted-outside-nato-framework-during-kosovo-conflict-france-says.html. Retrieved 2009-10-23. 
  6. ^ Diamond, John (2008). The CIA and the Culture of Failure: U.S. Intelligence from the end of the Cold War to the Invasion of Iraq. Stanford University Press. pp. 552. ISBN 0804756015. 
  7. ^ "Nato hits Chinese embassy". BBC News. 1999-05-08. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/338424.stm. Retrieved 2009-10-25. 
  8. ^ "Embassy strike 'a mistake'". BBC News. 1999-05-08. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/338557.stm. Retrieved 2009-10-25. 
  9. ^ Consulate General of the United States Hong Kong & Macau (1999-08-02). "Statements on NATO Bombing of China's Embassy in Belgrade". U.S. Department of State. http://www.usconsulate.org.hk/kosovo/statement.htm. Retrieved 2006-10-04.  (no longer available at source, text can be found here)
  10. ^ Negash, Girma (2007 (reprint)). Apologia Politica: States and Their Apologies by Proxy. Westport, Connecticut: Lexington Books. pp. 116. ISBN 0739122061. 
  11. ^ a b (Chinese) "资料:1999年5月9日胡锦涛就我驻南使馆遭袭击发表讲话" Accessed 1 July 2011
  12. ^ a b "Chinese in Belgrade, Beijing protest NATO embassy bombing" 9 May 1999
  13. ^ a b Dumbaugh, Kerry (2000-04-12). "Chinese Embassy Bombing in Belgrade:Compensation Issues". Congressional Research Service publication. http://congressionalresearch.com/RS20547/document.php. Retrieved 2010-04-08. 
  14. ^ a b c d Schmitt, Eric (1999-05-10). "CRISIS IN THE BALKANS: HUMAN ERROR; Wrong Address of Embassy in Databases". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/10/world/crisis-in-the-balkans-human-error-wrong-address-of-embassy-in-databases.html?pagewanted=all. Retrieved 2009-10-23. 
  15. ^ Cohen, William (1999-05-10). "Secretary of Defense Cohen's News Briefing on Chinese Embassy Bombing". US Department of Defense. http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=536. Retrieved 2009-10-23. 
  16. ^ MEDIA RELEASE:990516-2, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, 1999-05-16 
  17. ^ Diamond p.333
  18. ^ Pickering, Thomas R. (1999-07-06). "Oral Presentation the Chinese Government Regarding the Accidental Bombing of The P.R.C. Embassy in Belgrade". US Department of State. http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/6524.doc. Retrieved 2009-10-24. 
  19. ^ "Testimony of John J. Hamre, Deputy Secretary of Defense Before the House Select Committee on Intelligence". (FAS Copy). 1999-07-22. http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/1999_hr/990722-hamre.htm. Retrieved 2006-10-27. 
  20. ^ Snjezana Vukic and Peter Enav (January 2011). "China's new stealth fighter may use US technology". Associated Press. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2011/01/23/chinas-new-stealth-fighter-use-technology/. 
  21. ^ Peter Hays Gries (July 2001). "Tears of Rage: Chinese Nationalist Reactions to the Belgrade Embassy Bombing". The China Journal (Canberra, Australia: Contemporary China Center, Australian National University) (46): 25–43. ISSN 13249347. JSTOR 3182306. OCLC 41170782. 
  22. ^ Arkin, William M. (1999-11-08). "Chinese Embassy Continues to Smolder". Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A10160-1999Nov2. Retrieved 2009-10-26. 
  23. ^ "Strong Protest by the Chinese Government Against The Bombing by the US-led NATO of the Chinese Embassy in the Federal Yugoslavia". Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China. 2001-11-17. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/ziliao/3602/3604/t18047.htm. Retrieved 2009-10-22. 
  24. ^ Nato bombed Chinese deliberately
  25. ^ a b "Chinese Embassy Bombing--Media Reply, FAIR Responds". FAIR. 1999-11-03. http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1764. Retrieved 2009-10-25. 
  26. ^ a b c d "Morning Briefing". NATO Press Office. 1999-05-08. http://www.nato.int/koSovo/press/b990508a.htm. Retrieved 2009-10-25. 
  27. ^ "Truth behind America's raid on Belgrade". London: The Observer. 1999-11-28. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,3935955,00.html. Retrieved 2009-10-25. 
  28. ^ "Nato embassy attack 'not deliberate'". BBC News. 1999-10-17. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/477374.stm. Retrieved 25 June 2011. 
  29. ^ Steven Lee Myers (2000-04-17). "Chinese Embassy Bombing: A Wide Net of Blame". New York: New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9801EED91431F934A25757C0A9669C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1. Retrieved 2007-12-12. 
  30. ^ "Chinese Embassy Bombing--Media Reply, FAIR Responds". Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. 1999-11-03. http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1764. Retrieved 2008-02-03. 
  31. ^ Laura Rozen (2000-02-10). "A "Boneheaded" bombing". San Francisco: Salon. http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2000/02/10/embassy/index.html. Retrieved 2009-10-22. 
  32. ^ ""COLLATERAL DAMAGE" OR UNLAWFUL KILLINGS? : Violations of the laws of war by NATO during Operation Allied Force". Amnesty International. 2000-06-05. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/EUR70/018/2000/en/e7037dbb-df56-11dd-89a6-e712e728ac9e/eur700182000en.pdf. Retrieved 2009-10-27. 

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