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News 19 Aug 14

Ukraine Separatists Hail Arrival of Serb Volunteers

Defying warnings from the Serbian government and possible penalties for fighting in foreign wars, 14 Serbian fighters have reportedly joined the pro-Russian separatists in their Donetsk stronghold.

Marija Ristic
BIRN
Belgrade
Pro-Russian rebels ride on a tank in the town of Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine. Photo by BETA/AP

The Prime Minister of the breakaway pro-Russian enclave in eastern Ukraine, the Republic of Donetsk, on Monday said 14 Serbian volunteers had joined his embattled forces.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko said his troops were drawing volunteers from all over the world, Russia's NTV reported.

The announced arrival of a small group of Serbs comes after Serbian government said it may penalise locals who go off to to fight in foreign conflicts.

Those who organise volunteers could face jail terms of up to 12 years, while the fighters themselves could get from one to five years, if the law is changed.

Rasim Ljajic, Serbian trade minister, whose Social Democratic Party is pushing for the change in law, has said he expects a vote on the issue in parliament in autumn.

The Russian RIA Novosti news agency reported last week that Serbian volunteers are joining pro-Russian separatists in their fight against government troops in eastern Ukraine.

The agency reported that Igor Strelkov, who leads the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic defence forces, as saying that he knew some of the Serbian fighters from back when they all fought in the 1992-5 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Reacting to the report, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic commented that “dozens of Serbs can be seen fighting for both sides.

“Any involvement of Serbian citizens in the Ukrainian crisis is detrimental to Serbia," Vucic added. 

The Serbian Prime Minister urged all such volunteers or mercenaries to return to their own country "and think of their homes and families instead of fighting for a few thousand dollars. 

"Serbia has no part in that conflict. Serbia has a responsible policy... we are paying more and more attention to people returning from Syria and Iraq and to those involved in the conflict in Ukraine," he added last week. "We are monitoring their activities."

Serbia has taken a neutral stance towards the crisis in Ukraine amid opposing pressures from both Russia and the EU.

The governent wants to see Serbia inside the EU by 2020 and has made EU integration a priority, but it also does not wish this to take place at the expense of traditional warm ties to Russia.

Ukrainian forces have made substantial gains at the expense of the pro-Russian fighters in recent weeks. However, the rebels remain entrenched in Donetsk, posing a dillema for Ukraine about the potential number of civilian casualties if government troops attempted to storm the city.

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