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Key Kosovo front: air(wave) war

Battle for public opinion has both sides spinning powerful images in

Four weeks into NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, a second front has now turned full pitch: the battle for public opinion in the West.

The two sides are increasingly locked in a contest to influence what plays on television sets across Europe and America.

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The latest attempt at spin control involves NATO's accidental strike against refugees on Wednesday, which killed dozens of people. Yugoslavia took advantage by taking Western media to the site, trying to reinforce the impression that NATO has lost its moral argument that bombing will save ethnic Albanians.

For NATO, the ability of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to turn the media spotlight on certain incidents runs the risk that the war might lose popular support.

US military planners know well how public support can evaporate with one TV image. During the Vietnam War, shots of Viet Cong guerrillas striking the US Embassy in Saigon in 1968 helped turn American opinion. In 1993, scenes of a GI being dragged by a mob in Somalia led to a US withdrawal.

Such images play to a common weakness of democracies: a reluctance to sustain a long war against authoritarian regimes. Knowing that, Yugoslavia has an organized effort to shape opinion in the West - from photo ops to e-mail messages - hoping to crack NATO's unity.

One such effort comes from Kompani, a firm in Belgrade whose director, Dragana Disic, packages for wide distribution videos that condemn the NATO strikes. The spots, which the company hopes will reach Western eyes, are powerful. In one, NATO bombers fly through dark skies in the formation of a swastika. In another, a Serbian child asks his mother about the bombs and says, "It scares me, mother."

This hidden front in the war means both sides seem to be stretching the truth at times. NATO reported that, "according to reliable sources," the Serbs had executed two prominent ethnic Albanians - only to have one of them pop up at a press conference a week later. NATO also this week made accusations that the Serbs had buried ethnic Albanians in a "mass grave" - apparently based solely on an aerial photograph showing overturned earth.

The Serbs, on the other hand, claim to have shot down more than 30 manned NATO aircraft, while they provided evidence for only one. They have also claimed that NATO bombers are intentionally targeting Serbian civilians, while most evidence indicates that "collateral damage" has been caused by human or mechanical error.

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Western journalists have had limited access to both Serbian and NATO evidence, making it difficult for them to do more than - at best - reproduce each side's claims.

Western officials, furthermore, have turned to moral arguments to justify NATO bombings. Operation Allied Force, officials have said, is waging war against a regime that has brutally oppressed an ethnic group.

Such moral arguments have been particularly used in conjunction with NATO missions that have created unintended casualties - which, in addition to the refugee convoy, include 10 passengers on a train about 180 miles south of Belgrade and about 10 residents of a neighborhood in Aledsinac, in central Serbia.

"Of course we regret these things deeply when they happen," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday. "But that should not make us flinch from placing responsibility for this conflict squarely on the shoulders of ... Milosevic."

Serbs say NATO airstrikes aren't the first setting they've seen for media manipulation. "This has been going on for the last eight years," says Ms. Disic. "The propaganda from CNN is just as strong as ours. The only difference is that they're better at it."

But the Serbs hope all that will change. Firms like Kompani are spinning the Serbian side with a glitter that has been absent from previous campaigns here.

Workers at Kompani's production studio cringe when they recall the Bosnian war, and the self-inflicted image of Bosnian Serb soldiers as wild, drunken killers.

"Radovan Karadzic's haircut cost us hundreds of lives," says Disic, explaining that the Bosnian Serb leader's long, gray locks gave the wrong impression of Serbs, leading Western powers to support a massive offensive by the rival Croats.

In this war, perhaps the most successful Serbian public-relations campaign has featured the omnipresent black-and-white bull's-eyes with the word "target."

Anti-bombing posters throughout Belgrade are often in English, including one massive billboard on a bridge with a depiction of the Eiffel Tower under bomb attack and the caption "imagine."

But in the end, the Serbs are unable to compete with the slick production of Western companies and television stations. Their best spokesmen are successful athletes who play in the West and understand the value of a good sound bite, like basketball player Vlade Divac and soccer star Predrag Mijatovic.

Not coincidentally, the now-famous bull's-eye was designed by a Serb living in Boston.

The Serbs are further hampered by a conundrum in which many of the leading intellectuals here find themselves: They admire the West, yet must wage a war against them.

"Don't forget to say that we're still in love with America," says Vladimir Andonov, the owner of Kompani, which hopes to raise money to show their spots in the United States.

"We love your music, your television, everything. We hope we can work with American companies when the war is over."

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