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NATO bombing of an embassy of the People's Republic of China in Belgrade
Location Belgrade, Serbia, Yugoslavia
Coordinates 44°46′58″N 20°27′15″E / 44.78278°N 20.45417°E / 44.78278; 20.45417
Date May 7, 1999
Target Disputed
Attack type
Aerial bombing
Deaths 3
Non-fatal injuries
Perpetrators United States

On May 7, 1999, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (Operation Allied Force), five US JDAM guided 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. According to the USA, 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.[1] 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,[2] and that the CIA had identified the wrong coordinates for a Yugoslav military target on the same street.[3] The Chinese government issued a statement on the day of the bombing that it was a "barbarian act".[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 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,[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

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 telephoned his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin.

On May 12, to mourn the deaths of the bombing victims, American flags were ordered to be lowered to half-staff at U.S. diplomatic missions in China and the Chinese dependent territory of Hong Kong. The photo above shows the lowered American flag at the American consulate in Hong Kong.[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. 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."[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]

During the first day and a half of the crisis, many of our colleagues, especially those in the Chancery and at some of the Consulates, were in significant danger. Though U.S. Marines protected the Chancery from direct assault, officers on the spot engaged in a full-scale destruction of classified materials that might fall into the hands of demonstrators should the Embassy be overrun. In hindsight, it appears the danger was never that close, but several Chinese did jump the compound wall and had to be confronted by Marines in full battle gear before they were persuaded to jump back over the wall. Except for Shanghai, with its own Marine guard contingent, the other Consulates were protected only by Chinese security guards. In Chengdu those guards were of virtually no help. Demonstrators climbed the compound wall, set fire to the Consul’s residence, and smashed their way through the outer door of the Consulate. They were using a bike rack to try to crash into the interior – while screaming that they were going to exact vengeance – when city security forces finally arrived and routed them. Our colleagues were understandably terrified through this ordeal. They were frantically calling the Embassy and local contacts, and getting increasingly agitated by the slow, almost grudging response of the Chengdu authorities.

—Paul Blackburn, Foreign Service Officer, The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training[14]

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 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.[13] 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.[13]

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.[15] 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".[16] The statement made no mention of the CIA. It was subsequently revealed that the CIA possessed maps showing the embassy.[15]

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.[15] 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, less than half of the actual distance.

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."[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, and 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 200 m (220 yd) short of the junction with Cherry Blossom St.[15] 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.[3] 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]

Chinese reaction

Few Chinese politicians believed the US version of events, believing instead the strike had been deliberate.[20]

Former ambassador Li Daoyu stated "we don't say it was a decision of Clinton or the White House",[21] 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.[22]

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.[23] 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.[24] After a four-month investigation, they published their findings on Oct 17.

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.[25] Apart from "the FDSP weapons warehouse", every target that night was a command and control center.[25]

A further report in The Observer of November 28, 1999 added more details.[26] 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 500 m (550 yd) away, is consistent with this interpretation.[25]

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".[27]

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.[24]

Other sources, including major American media such as the Washington Post, New York Times and Chicago Tribune maintained that while culpability rested with inaccurate strike planning, the attack was not deliberate.[28] 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.[29]

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.[30] 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.[25] 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.

ICTY Investigation

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 of the Chinese Embassy.[31] In reaching its decision, it rendered 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.[32]
  • The USA 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.[33]
  • 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.[34]

Amnesty International report

Amnesty International examined the NATO air campaign and assessed the legality of its actions.[35] 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.[36]

See also


  1. "Chinese Embassy Bombing In Belgrade: Compensation Issues". Retrieved January 27, 2012. 
  2. Schmitt, Eric (July 23, 1999). "In a Fatal Error, C.I.A. Picked a Bombing Target Only Once: The Chinese Embassy". New York Times. Retrieved October 22, 2009. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Tenet, George (July 22, 1999). "DCI Statement on the Belgrade Chinese Embassy Bombing House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Open Hearing". Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved October 4, 2006. 
  4. "Chinese demand U.N. meeting after Belgrade embassy attacked". CNN. 
  5. Whitney, Craig (November 11, 1999). "U.S. Military Acted Outside NATO Framework During Kosovo Conflict, France Says". New York Times. Retrieved October 23, 2009. 
  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. p. 552. ISBN 0-8047-5601-5. 
  7. "Nato hits Chinese embassy". BBC News. May 8, 1999. Retrieved October 25, 2009. 
  8. "Embassy strike 'a mistake'". BBC News. May 8, 1999. Retrieved October 25, 2009. 
  9. Consulate General of the United States Hong Kong & Macau (August 2, 1999). "Statements on NATO Bombing of China's Embassy in Belgrade". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved October 4, 2006.  (no longer available at source, text can be found here [1])
  10. Negash, Girma (2007). Apologia Politica: States and Their Apologies by Proxy (reprint ed.). Westport, Connecticut: Lexington Books. p. 116. ISBN 0-7391-2206-1. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 (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 July 1, 2011
  12. 12.0 12.1 "Chinese in Belgrade, Beijing protest NATO embassy bombing" May 9, 1999
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Dumbaugh, Kerry (April 12, 2000). "Chinese Embassy Bombing in Belgrade:Compensation Issues". Congressional Research Service publication. Retrieved April 8, 2010. 
  14. Blackburn, Paul. "Dealing with a PR Disaster – The U.S. Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade". The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training: Foreign Affairs Oral History Project. Retrieved 8 May 2013. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Schmitt, Eric (May 10, 1999). "CRISIS IN THE BALKANS: HUMAN ERROR; Wrong Address of Embassy in Databases". New York Times. Retrieved October 23, 2009. 
  16. Cohen, William (May 10, 1999). "Secretary of Defense Cohen's News Briefing on Chinese Embassy Bombing". US Department of Defense. Retrieved October 23, 2009. 
  17. "MEDIA RELEASE:990516-2". National Imagery and Mapping Agency. May 16, 1999. 
  18. Pickering, Thomas R. (July 6, 1999). "Oral Presentation the Chinese Government Regarding the Accidental Bombing of The P.R.C. Embassy in Belgrade". US Department of State. Retrieved October 24, 2009. 
  19. "Testimony of John J. Hamre, Deputy Secretary of Defense Before the House Select Committee on Intelligence". (FAS Copy). July 22, 1999. Retrieved October 27, 2006. 
  20. Peter Hays Gries (July 2001). "Tears of Rage: Chinese Nationalist Reactions to the Belgrade Embassy Bombing". Canberra, Australia: Contemporary China Center, Australian National University. pp. 25–43. ISSN 1324-9347. JSTOR 3182306. OCLC 41170782. 
  21. Arkin, William M. (November 8, 1999). "Chinese Embassy Continues to Smolder". Washington Post. Retrieved October 26, 2009. 
  22. "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. November 17, 2001. Retrieved October 22, 2009. 
  23. Vulliamy, Ed; Sweeney, John (October 17, 1999). "Nato bombed Chinese deliberately". London: Guardian.,2763,203214,00.html. Retrieved January 27, 2012. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 "Chinese Embassy Bombing--Media Reply, FAIR Responds". FAIR. November 3, 1999. Retrieved October 25, 2009. 
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 "Morning Briefing". NATO Press Office. May 8, 1999. Retrieved October 25, 2009. 
  26. "Truth behind America's raid on Belgrade". London: The Observer. November 28, 1999.,4273,3935955,00.html. Retrieved October 25, 2009. 
  27. "Nato embassy attack 'not deliberate'". BBC News. October 17, 1999. Retrieved June 25, 2011. 
  28. Steven Lee Myers (April 17, 2000). "Chinese Embassy Bombing: A Wide Net of Blame". New York: New York Times. Retrieved December 12, 2007. 
  29. "Chinese Embassy Bombing—Media Reply, FAIR Responds". Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. November 3, 1999. Retrieved February 3, 2008. 
  30. Laura Rozen (February 10, 2000). "A "Boneheaded" bombing". San Francisco: Salon. Retrieved October 22, 2009. 
  31. "Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia". UNICTY. 
  32. "Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia". Para 82: UNICTY. 
  33. "Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia". Para 84: UNICTY. 
  34. "Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia". Para 85: UNICTY. 
  35. ""COLLATERAL DAMAGE" OR UNLAWFUL KILLINGS? : Violations of the laws of war by NATO during Operation Allied Force". Amnesty International. June 5, 2000. Archived from the original on December 7, 2010. Retrieved October 27, 2009. 

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