BELGRADE – April 23rd will mark 15 years since NATO’s early- morning air strike on the Radio and Television of Serbia (RTS) which killed 16 of its employees.

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Marking the anniversary on Wednesday, member of the Belgrade interim council Andrija Mladenovic will lay wreaths at the memorial “Why?” and pay respect to the victims, the city assembly announced.

The NATO bombing of the Radio Television of Serbia headquarters occurred on 23 April 1999, during the “Kosovo War”. It formed part of NATO’s aerial campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and severely damaged the Belgrade headquarters of RTS.

Sixteen employees of RTS died when a single NATO missile hit the building.

Jelica Munitlak (28) make-up artist, Ksenija Bankovic (28) video mixer, Darko Stiomenovski (26) Technician in exchange, Nebojsa Stojanovic (27) and Branislav Jovanovic (50) TV technicians, Dragorad Dragojevic (27), Dejan Markovic (39) and Milan Joksimovic (47) security guards, Dragan Tasic (31) electrician, Aleksandar Deletic (31) cameraman, Slavisa Stevanovic (32) and Ivan Stukalo (34) technicians, Sinisa Medic (32) Programme designer, Milan Jankovic (59) technician, Tomislav Mitrovic (61) Programme Director and Slobodan Jontic (54) technician were killed at 2:06 a.m.

Photo: Slobodan Pikula
Photo: Slobodan Pikula

NATO Headquarters justified the bombing with two arguments; firstly, that it was necessary “to disrupt and degrade the command, control and communications network” of the Yugoslav Armed Forces, and secondly, that the RTS headquarters was a dual-use object which “was making an important contribution to the propaganda war which orchestrated the campaign against the population of Kosovo”.

The BBC reported that the station was targeted because of its role in Belgrade’s propaganda campaign.

With the bombing of the Radio Television of Serbia headquarters NATO recognized that opponents’ journalists and media are considered a weapon during the war.

Human Rights Watch said in 2000 that there was no justification for the bombing of the television station.

NATO air strikes on Serbia, then a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, started on March 24, 1999. The 78-day bombing campaign caused the deaths of at least 2,500 people, injuring a further 12,500.

Holbrooke: Enormously important positive development

Richard Holbrooke
Richard Holbrooke

While giving a speech at the Overseas Press Club sixtieth anniversary dinner, held on Thursday evening 22 April 1999 EST at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, U.S. envoy to Yugoslavia Richard Holbrooke reacted to the NATO’s bombing of the RTS headquarters almost immediately after it took place: “Eason Jordan told me just before I came up here that while we’ve been dining tonight, the air strikes hit Serb TV and took out the Serb television, and at least for the time being they’re off the air. That is an enormously important event, if it is in fact as Eason reported it, and I believe everything CNN tells me. If, in fact, they’re off the air even temporarily, as all of you know, one of the three key pillars, along with the security forces and the secret police, have been at least temporarily removed. And it is an enormously important and, I think, positive development.”

ICTY: Attack was legally acceptable

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A report conducted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) entitled “Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” said: “Insofar as the attack actually was aimed at disrupting the communications network, it was legally acceptable … NATO’s targeting of the RTS building for propaganda purposes was an incidental (albeit complementary) aim of its primary goal of disabling the Serbian military command and control system and to destroy the nerve system and apparatus that keeps Milošević in power”

In regards to civilian casualties, it further stated that though they were, “unfortunately high, they do not appear to be clearly disproportionate.”

UNS:  War crime investigation has not been conducted yet

The Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS) emphasized in a release that a thorough investigation into this war crime has not been conducted yet.

UNS urged the Serbian Ministry of Defense and the Military Security Agency to make available all the information that may be important for establishing responsibility for this heinous crime to the Commission for investigating murders of journalists.

Former RTS director Dragoljub Milanovic was sentenced to ten years in prison in Belgrade 2002 for disregarding the order of the then federal government to relocate the personnel and equipment from the RTS buildings. Having served the full sentence, Milanovic was released on September 1, 2012.

The government of Serbia established an international commission last year with an aim to examine the facts obtained in the investigations into the murders of journalists Dada Vujasinovic, Slavko Curuvija and Milan Pantic. The commission’s mandate was extended to include the case of RTS media professionals killed in the 1999 bombing.

The memorial park “Lest We Forget”, featuring a group of 16 hornbeam trees, one for each killed RTS employee, was opened a month ago in the Belgrade Kosutnjak Park.

To commemorate the tragic loss of RTS employees, memorial footsal tournaments are held every spring under the title “Let’s play for the 16”.