- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BELGRADE, SERBIA (AP) - Air raid sirens sounded across Serbia on Tuesday to mark the 10th anniversary of the NATO bombing that ended Belgrade’s rule in Kosovo.

Officials denounced the raids, which NATO carried out to force then-President Slobodan Milosevic to halt his onslaught against separatists in the former Serbian province.

“The attack on our country was an illegal act,” Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic said. “Serbia cannot forget those tragic days.”

Classes in Serbia’s schools opened with a minute of silence for the victims. The government held a special session dedicated to the anniversary and ministers planned to lay wreaths at bombing sites throughout the country.

The ceremonies illustrate continued anti-Western sentiment in Serbia over the NATO air war, which forced the country to relinquish control over Kosovo to the United Nations and NATO.

Later Tuesday, about 1,000 hard-liners chanted “We Want Guns” and booed the mention of NATO during a rally in downtown Belgrade. Hundreds of riot police deployed nearby to prevent unrest similar to that which followed Kosovo’s declaration of independence last year. In that violence, nationalists demolished the city center, and smashed and set fire to the U.S. and other Western embassies.

Incidents also were reported after the rally Tuesday. Police said a group of demonstrators clashed with police, who detained 24 of them. Three policemen and two demonstrators were injured, police said. Witnesses said the nationalists smashed the window of a McDonald’s restaurant in central Belgrade.

Kosovo declared independence with the backing of the United States and most EU nations. But Serbia has vowed never to accept Kosovo’s independence.

President Boris Tadic reiterated Serbia’s position at the U.N. Security Council on Monday. He said the bombing was a “tragic” event when Serbs were “accused and bombed collectively.”

NATO launched the air raids on March 24, 1999.

The alliance destroyed many of Serbia’s roads, bridges and factories before Milosevic conceded defeat in June. Cvetkovic asserted Tuesday that 2,500 civilians _ including 89 children _ and 1,002 soldiers and policemen were killed.

But independent assessments have put the number of civilian casualties far lower. Human Rights Watch estimates that about 500 civilians died as a result of the NATO campaign.

The U.N. estimates that about 10,000 people were killed in Kosovo alone in fighting between guerrillas of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbian forces loyal to Milosevic. Another 800,000 people were displaced during the 1998-99 war.

Milosevic was charged with genocide by a U.N. tribunal for the atrocities committed there and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia. He died in 2006 while on trial.

NATO officials in Brussels declined to comment on the anniversary.

But in his address at the annual Brussels Forum security conference on Sunday, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer described the decision to bomb Serbia as “controversial but nevertheless necessary.”

In Kosovo, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the bombing anniversary as “a great historic day.” He said that the NATO intervention “opened a new chapter in Kosovo’s history … the chapter of freedom and the building of meaningful democracy.”

But there is still a divide in Kosovo. Thousands of Serbs marched in the northern city of Mitrovica to mark the anniversary, and Serbian Orthodox priests held a service for the victims. No violent incidents were reported.

Milosevic’s followers still hold considerable influence in Serbia, whose current government includes ministers from the Socialist Party that Milosevic founded.

The Socialist Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic spoke Monday at a pro-Milosevic gathering in Belgrade denouncing the NATO bombing as a “criminal act” designed to strip Serbia of its right to Kosovo. Milosevic’s brother Borislav Milosevic was also present.

In a rare criticism of the anniversary ceremonies, pro-Western Liberal Party leader Cedomir Jovanovic said the government was not making it clear that the bombing was “the consequence of (Serbia’s) irresponsible policies, policies full of crime and mistakes” under Milosevic.


Associated Press Writers Nebi Qena in Kosovo and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.

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