The Grdelica train bombing occurred on 12 April 1999, when two missiles fired by NATO aircraft hit a passenger train while it was passing across a railway bridge over the Južna Morava river at Grdelica gorge, some 300 kilometres (190 mi) south of Belgrade in Serbia. As a result, 14 civilians including children and a pregnant woman were killed and another 16 passengers wounded.
The bombing occurred during Operation Allied Force, a NATO operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) aimed at forcing the FRY government to “end the repression of Albanians in Kosovo.” The campaign had begun by attacking mainly military targets, but by mid-April the emphasis had changed to strategic and economic targets such as transport links, particularly major bridges.
The bombing occurred at about 11.40 hours local time. An AGM-130 missile precision-guided munition released by a NATO F-15E Strike Eagle struck the centre of the bridge at the exact moment that the No. 393 passenger train, en route from Belgrade to Ristovac, was crossing the bridge. The missile struck the train, causing major damage, but did not destroy the bridge.
According to General Wesley Clark, who was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) at the time, the train had been traveling too fast and the bomb was too close to the target for it to divert in time. The first missile had been fired from a significant distance from the target, and the pilot was allegedly not able to recognize the train visually. Realizing that the train had been hit but believing that he could still complete the mission by striking the end of the bridge where the train had already passed, the pilot then made another pass and fired a second missile. This one too hit the train. Clark described the second hit as an “uncanny accident” in which the train had continued moving into the target area, obscured by dust and smoke from the first strike.
The Yugoslav state news agency Tanjug released an editorial that accused NATO of performing the attack with the aim of inflicting suffering on and destroying the Serbian people. In a press conference the day after the attack, General Clark stated that “it was an unfortunate incident which he, and the crew, and all of us very much regret” and “it is one of those regrettable things that happen in a campaign like this and we are all very sorry for it, but we are doing the absolute best we can do to avoid collateral damage.” The U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, John Hamre, told the United States Congress a few months later that “We never wanted to destroy that train or kill its occupants. We did want to destroy the bridge and we regret this accident.”
The German Frankfurter Rundschau prompted a further controversy during January 2000, when it reported that the NATO video had been shown at three times its real speed, giving a misleading impression of the train’s speed.
The Pentagon and NATO stated that the error had been the result of the video being speeded up for battle damage assessment purposes, but not being slowed again for the press conference. Later investigation by Frankfurter Rundschau asserted that the video was sped up 4.7 times.
Amnesty International argued that the attack should have been stopped when the train had been struck, and that the second bombing had violated the principle of proportionality. In a post-war report, Amnesty stated that the incident
“appears to have violated Article 57 of Protocol I which requires an attack to ‘be cancelled or suspended if it becomes clear that the objective is a not a military one … or that the attack may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life… which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.’ ”
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) established a committee during May 1999 to determine whether offences against international law had been committed during the NATO campaign. In its final report to the tribunal’s Prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, the committee took the view that the attack had been proportionate:
“It is the opinion of the committee that the bridge was a legitimate military objective. The passenger train was not deliberately targeted. The person controlling the bombs, pilot or WSO, targeted the bridge and, over a very short period of time, failed to recognize the arrival of the train while the first bomb was in flight. The train was on the bridge when the bridge was targeted a second time and the bridge length has been estimated at 50 meters … It is the opinion of the committee that the information in relation to the attack with the first bomb does not provide a sufficient basis to initiate an investigation.”
The committee was divided over the question of whether the aircrew had behaved recklessly. It recommended nonetheless “that the attack on the train at Grdelica Gorge should not be investigated by the [Prosecutor].