NEWS 24 Mar 17

Serbia Mourns 1999 Bombing Victims; Kosovo Thanks NATO

Serbia marked the 18th anniversary of NATO bombing of Yugoslavia with a ceremony in Grdelica, where a passenger train was hit - but Kosovo officials gave thanks for the Western military intervention.

Filip Rudic, Die Morina
BIRN
Belgrade, Pristina
Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic at the commemoration in Grdelica. Photo: Beta/Sasa Djordjevic.

Several hundred people joined Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in Grdelica on Friday to commemorate the victims of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, which started on March 24, 1999.

Vucic said at the ceremony that NATO’s military intervention, which was intended to halt Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s offensive in Kosovo, was “one of the most brutal aggressions in the history of warfare”.

“Serbia is now stronger than it was in the past years and decades. It will never again suffer aggression from which it will not emerge victorious,” Vucic added.

He said that Serbia has now chosen to have “respectful” relations with NATO, but will never seek membership of the allience.

The passenger train was hit by two NATO aircraft while it was crossing the bridge on April 12, 1999. Nine bodies have been found, but the total number of casualties remains unknown.

Montenegrins to Sue for NATO Bombing

A group of anti-NATO organisations in Montenegro called the Neutrality Union announced on Thursday it will sue all the military alliance’s member states that participated in the air strikes on Yugoslavia in 1999.

The Neutrality Union did not explain the details of the appeal however, or where exactly it will be filed.

Nineteen Western NATO states, excluding Greece, deployed troops for the 78-long air strike campaign in Yugoslavia, which was then composed of Serbia and Montenegro. The operation was launched without a UN Security Council mandate, which the Neutrality Union sees as grounds for its complaint.

“More and more young people got affected by cancer. We will ask them to pay damages and the money will to open an oncology centre,” the organisation's legal representative Nikola Jovanovic told a press conference.

The NATO bombing in 1999 killed ten people in Montenegro, nine of whom were civilians. Six civilians including three children were killed in an airstrike on a bridge in the village of Murino in Montenegro on April 30, 1999.

The victims’ families sued the state in 2007 because the Montenegrin authorities failed to issue an emergency alert in Murino ahead of the bombing of the bridge, although sirens were sounded in the nearby town of Plav.

The court in Podgorica rejected all the compensation suits, ruling that “the claims are out of date”.

Montenegro is in the final stage of joining NATO, and the government expects the process could end my May. But NATO remains a controversial issue in Montenegro on account of the 1999 bombing.

Public support for NATO membership remains low, according to opinion polls. The government claims 46 per cent of Montenegrins support membership, but opposition parties and NGOs believe that figure is much lower, at around 35 per cent.

Dusica Tomovic, BIRN, Podgorica

 

The beginning of the commemoration was marked by an air-raid siren, after which a train stopped at the bridge and a moment of silence was observed.

Vucic and Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik laid wreaths at the site, accompanied by the victims’ families.

Dodik said that Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, will follow Serbia’s lead and refuse to become part of NATO.

“Republika Srpska knows it is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but this is out of compulsion, not out of choice,” Dodik said.

Commemorations of NATO bombing were also held in Belgrade and other cities in Serbia.

President Tomislav Nikolic unveiled a bronze memorial dedicated to ‘Serbian mothers’ at the Serbian Army Hall.

In Pristina however, officials had warm words for NATO on the anniversary of the start of the 78-day bombing campaign that made Milosevic’s forces pull out of Kosovo.

“The launch of North Atlantic Alliance’s air campaign on March 24, 1999, is historic day for Kosovo and NATO, but also for the concept of freedom and the need for its protection from criminal regimes,” Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa wrote on Facebook.

“Today, we express our eternal gratitude to the United States, the United Kingdom and all the other countries of NATO that were with us in the most difficult moments,” Mustafa said.

Ali Kamaj, an 80-year-old from the village of Strellc i Ulet/Donji Streoc, told BIRN that the anniversary of the NATO intervention should be celebrated by all Kosovo Albanians, because it was the beginning of the end of Serbian rule.

“When we were informed that the first plane was on the way to Kosovo’s land, to liberate us from a very ugly enemy, that was the greatest joy I ever had in my life,” Kamaj said.

“On one hand it was a great joy seeing that our enemy was being attacked, but on the other hand we were really afraid of the Serbs. As they were being bombed, we were afraid that they would take revenge on us,” he added.

The Serbian government estimates that at least 2,500 people died and 12,500 were injured during the 78 days of the NATO military campaign.

It is estimated that the bombing damaged 25,000 houses and apartment buildings and destroyed 470 kilometres of roads and 600 kilometres of railway.

So far only Serbia’s defence ministry has publicly revealed its data, saying that NATO forces killed 631 members of the Serbian armed forces, while a further 28 went missing.

The number of casualties remains unclear, and Human Rights Watch puts the civilian death toll at around 500.

NATO has never revealed its losses.

NATO launched air strikes after the failure of peace talks that were meant to end Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s violent campaign against Kosovo Albanians.

During the bombing, Yugoslav forces carried out an extensive campaign in Kosovo, resulting in the expulsion of much of the Kosovo Albanian population.

The Hague Tribunal later charged Milosevic and six other top Belgrade officials with committing war crimes in Kosovo, although the former leader died before a verdict was reached.

The bombing ended on June 10, 1999, after the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement and the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which was followed by the withdrawal of all Yugoslav military forces from Kosovo and the arrival of 36,000 international peacekeepers.

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