Thursday, March 24, 2005

Belgrade and Pristina mark sixth anniversary of start of NATO bombing

Six years after NATO launched its air war against Serbia over Kosovo, Serbs remembered the day as a "tragic date in our history" while Kosovo's ethnic Albanians hailed the bombing as the dawn of freedom.

NATO launched its air campaign March 24, 1999, to stop a crackdown by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on the predominantly Muslim Albanian majority in Serbia's separatist Kosovo province.

After 78 days of airstrikes, Milosevic was forced to withdraw his troops, leaving Kosovo administered by the United Nations and NATO.

Up to 1 million ethnic Albanians were temporarily driven from Kosovo during the crackdown in 1998-1999, and an estimated 10,000 were killed. In the rest of Serbia, NATO strikes killed about 2,000 soldiers, policemen and civilians.

Serbia's President Boris Tadic urged the Serbs "never to forget this tragic date in our recent history, so something like that would never happen again."

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a fierce critic of Western policies in Serbia, attended a ceremony at St. Marko's Church in Belgrade held for the those killed in the bombing. Other officials laid wreaths at spots in the capital hit by bombs.

Dozens of key structures hit from the air by NATO remain in ruins, including the Yugoslav army and police headquarters in the center of the city.

In Kosovo, in an illustration of the Kosovo-Serbia divide, ethnic Albanians marked the start of the bombing as a key step in their quest to win independence from Serbia.

Kosovo's President Ibrahim Rugova said in a statement that the sixth anniversary of the NATO bombing marked the "dawn of freedom," which should lead to eventual independence. Newspapers carried messages of gratitude to the United States and its allies on front pages.

Dukagjin Gorani, editor-in-chief of Kosovo daily Express called the bombing "a miracle that managed to get rid of the only problem I had and fulfilled my biggest wish."

But Kosovo remains an ethnically tense area with occasional violence directed mostly against the province's dwindling Serb minority. More than 200,000 Serbs have fled Kosovo since 1999 and those who stayed behind live in isolated enclaves guarded by NATO.

Kosovo's final status is yet to be decided. Talks on its status are expected to start later this year. Belgrade and Pristina have fiercely conflicting stands on the issue, with Kosovo ethnic Albanians insisting on independence from Serbia and Belgrade hoping to retain at least some authority over the province which it considers the cradle of Serb history and culture.


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