Grdelica train bombing

The Grdelica train bombing occurred on 12 April 1999, when two missiles fired by US aircraft hit a passenger train while it was passing across a railway bridge over the Južna Morava river in the Grdelica gorge, some 300 kilometres (190 mi) south of Belgrade, Serbia. At least 20 civilian passengers were killed or declared missing. Estimates of the total death toll run as high as 60.[1] It is considered the deadliest rail disaster in Serbian history.[4][5]

Grdelica train bombing
Part of Kosovo War
Грделичка клисура мост.JPG
Railway bridge and monument to victims
TypeMissile attack
Near Grdelica, Serbia

42°52′37″N 22°05′09″E / 42.87697°N 22.085953°E / 42.87697; 22.085953Coordinates: 42°52′37″N 22°05′09″E / 42.87697°N 22.085953°E / 42.87697; 22.085953
Date12 April 1999
Executed byNATO
Casualties20 killed or missing according to HRW[1]
50 killed according to Tanjug[1]
Other sources reported 55-60[2][3] killed

The bombing occurred during Operation Allied Force, a NATO operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) allegedly aimed at forcing the FRY government to end the repression of Albanians in Kosovo and Metohija.[6] 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 US 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.[7]

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,[8] stating that the pilot allegedly had had less than one second to react.[9] A gun camera video was released by NATO to support its version of the events. Future controversy occurred when it was discovered that released video was sped up 4.7 times.


Monument to the victims

The incident caused an immediate controversy in Serbia and abroad. 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".[10] 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."[11]

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.[12] 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.[13][14] Later investigation by Frankfurter Rundschau asserted that the video was sped up 4.7 times.[9]

Legal issuesEdit

The Yugoslav government and some Western groups characterised the attack as a "crime".[10] Other human rights organisations criticised the way that the attack had been continued after the train had been struck by the first strike. 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.' "[15]

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."[16]

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]."[16] A.P.V. Rogers comments that the committee "must have considered the first missile strike to be a legitimate action against a military objective, the inference being that any civilian casualties of that strike were not disproportionate, and that the firing of the second missile was an error of judgment in the heat of the moment."[17]

List of killed passengersEdit

  • Zoran Jovanović (35) from Niš
  • Petar (46) and Verka (47) Mladenović, family from Niš
  • Ana (25) and Ivan Marković (26), family from Leskovac
  • Jasmina Veljković (28) from Stalać
  • Vidosav (45), Divna (41) and son Branimir (5) Stanijanović, family from Prćilovica
  • Simeon Todorov (31) from Stalać
  • Svetomir Petković (64) from Aleksinac
  • Radomir Jovanović (45) from Niš

Other victims couldn't be identified.[18]


The damaged bridge was repaired and reopened during September 1999.[19] On 12 April 2007 a ceremony was performed at the site to mourn the victims on the occasion of the eighth anniversary of the bombing.[20]


  1. ^ a b c "Human Rights Watch: Kosovo: Civilian Deaths in the NATO Air Campaign". 1 February 2000. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  2. ^ "The Irish Times: A long litany of NATO mistakes hits a new low". 10 May 1999. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  3. ^ Jeffrey St. Clair, Alexander Cockburn (15 June 1999). "CounterPunch: Who NATO Killed". Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  4. ^ "Novosti: Grdelica: Obeleženo 15 godina od raketiranja putničkog voza" (in Serbian). 12 April 2014. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  5. ^ [1] PTC: Годишњица бомбардовања моста у Грделици. (in Serbian) April 12, 2010. Retrieved July 17, 2017.
  6. ^ "NATO & Kosovo: Historical Overview". NATO. Retrieved 15 January 2012.
  7. ^ Elmer Schmähling, "More or Less Exposed Non-combatants and Civilian Objects under the conditions of 'Modern Warfare'", in Mathematics and War (ed. Jens Høyrup, Bernhelm Booss), p. 287. Birkhäuser, 2003. ISBN 3-7643-1634-9
  8. ^ Press Conference by Jamie Shea and General Wesley Clark, 13 April 1999.
  9. ^ a b "Film NATO iz Grdeličke klisure ubrzan skoro pet puta". Glas javnosti. 19 January 2000.
  10. ^ a b "Children's choir leads Serb TV offensive". BBC News. 13 April 1999. Retrieved 4 July 2007.
  11. ^ Statement of the Honorable John J. Hamre, Deputy Secretary of Defense. Before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. 22 July 1999.
  12. ^ "NATO used speeded-up film to excuse civilian deaths in Kosovo: newspaper". Agence France Presse. 6 January 2000.
  13. ^ "DefenseLink News Transcript: DoD News Briefing – Mr. Crowley, PDASD PA and RADM Quigley, DASD PA, 6 January 2000.
  14. ^ "Nato missile video 'no distortion'". BBC News. 7 January 2000. Retrieved 5 July 2007.
  15. ^ Amnesty International, NATO/Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: "Collateral damage" or unlawful killings", 7 May 2000.
  16. ^ a b "Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, 13 June 2000.
  17. ^ A.P.V. Rogers, "What is a legitimate military target?", in International Conflict and Security Law: Essays in Memory of Hilaire Mccoubrey, p. 167. Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-521-84531-9
  18. ^ Nato Crimes in Yugoslavia: Documentary Evidence, Volume 1. Belgrade: Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 1999. p. 307. ISBN 86-7549-124-7.
  19. ^ "Reconstruction of rail bridge in Grdelica Gorge", Borba English daily, 15 September 1999.
  20. ^ SERBIAN RAILWAYS – View Single News