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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belgrade Suffers Heaviest Raids Yet

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- NATO firepower blasted the heart of the Yugoslav capital on Friday and hit a Belgrade residential neighborhood for the first time in the latest misfire by alliance jets.

The raids were NATO's heaviest so far in its five-week-old campaign and they came just hours before Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin arrived on a diplomatic shuttle mission to promote a peace plan for Kosovo. He went into a meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Chernomyrdin had said after meeting Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der in Bonn and Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema in Rome on Thursday that there had been progress but no breakthrough on the diplomatic front.

Moscow reiterated however that it would not join an oil embargo imposed on Yugoslavia by NATO and the European Union.

American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson also was in Belgrade on a mission to win freedom for three U.S. soldiers held by Yugoslavia and to try to help find a resolution to the conflict.

NATO planes pounded Belgrade overnight and the alliance said its jets had carried out more than 600 sorties f the most of any 24-hour period in the allied campaign.

NATO hit the Yugoslav army headquarters and the Defense Ministry for the first time. The Interior Ministry and a television transmitter also were struck.

Several houses were damaged or destroyed and heaps of debris lay along two streets following a strike on the Vracar neighborhood, less than two kilometers from the army headquarters and the Interior Ministry. It was the first time civilian homes had been damaged in the capital since the air raids began.

"One missile bomb went astray and landed on some houses," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea acknowledged in Brussels, Belgium.

He said there were no casualties. But state media reported at least four people were injured.

To compound Yugoslavians' worries, an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale shook Serbia and Montenegro on Friday morning. There were no reports of casualties or damage.

In the Vracar district, shaken residents said they heard two large explosions after low-flying jets dropped their bombs when met by heavy anti-aircraft fire. The blasts shattered a water main, flooding the area. People stumbled through the wreckage and ambulances rushed to the scene. One car lay crushed under massive chunks of concrete and firefighters searched the rubble before dawn, looking for victims."The Germans never did anything like this," said a deeply shaken Jovanka Ilic, a schoolteacher, referring to the World War II Nazi bombing of Belgrade. "I cannot believe it. I simply cannot believe it."

Across town, gaping holes were visible in the army's red, fortress-like twin headquarters buildings following what Shea said was a strike at "the heart of the military machine of President Slobodan Milosevic."

The two Defense Ministry buildings, the NATO spokesman said, are "the brains that guide the operations in Kosovo." The buildings are believed to have been evacuated after NATO started the bombing campaign.

Nearby buildings including the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry and the Serbian government headquarters also were heavily damaged, holes bashed in their facades and doors and window frames blown out.

Hours later, dazed soldiers cleaned up the tangle of twisted steel and concrete in front of the army headquarters. Stunned onlookers wept.

"They are destroying us, one by one, piece by piece," said Jasminka Radovanovic, 30. "What do they want from us?"

NATO's targets overnight included a telecommunications tower southeast of the capital that alliance jets destroyed, knocking Serbian state television off the air for several hours.

Alliance missiles also hit targets in Montenegro, Serbia's small partner in the Yugoslav federation, which edged closer to civil unrest after its pro-Serbian party walked out of talks with the Western-oriented government aimed at preserving peace.

Montenegro, with a population of just 640,000, is split down the middle.

It was unclear how the latest NATO attack would effect Chernomyrdin's mission. The former Russian prime minister was to explore ways of narrowing the gap between NATO and Milosevic on a settlement to the Yugoslav crisis.

Chernomyrdin insists that a halt to the bombing is a precondition for peace talks, something the alliance has repeatedly refused.

The Russian plan calls for a UN-controlled international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, which Belgrade has so far rejected.

Amid the diplomacy and violence, neighboring Macedonia lurched towards a refugee disaster. Aid workers warned on Friday it was only a matter of time before a major outbreak of disease hit camps overflowing with ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo.

Thousands more refugees arrived in Macedonia on Thursday and were taken to an unfinished refugee camp with no sanitation, or told to sleep under plastic sheets because there was nowhere to house them.

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin arrived in Albania on Friday. He will spend two days there and in Macedonia visiting refugee camps and bases for French NATO troops.

In Washington, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee approved a $12.9-billion spending package to help pay for the Kosovo conflict as House Democrats lashed out at Republicans for failing to support the air raids in Yugoslavia.

They questioned how Republicans could support a steep increase in spending just a day after refusing to back the airstrikes and blocking funding for a ground campaign unless authorized by Congress.

The House on Wednesday had rejected, on a tie of 213-213, a Democratic motion endorsing the air attacks.