BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — President Boris Tadic of Serbia said Saturday the NATO bombing campaign that stopped his country's onslaught on Kosovo 13 years ago was a crime, and he honored the hundreds of Serbs the alliance killed.
In many ways, Tadic's comments reflect a prevailing sentiment in Serbia that the nation was unjustly vilified during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and that the 78-day air war by NATO forces in 1999 was wrong.
"That was a crime against our country and our people, and I have nothing to add to that," Tadic said during a wreath laying ceremony in the central Serbian town of Aleksinac.
It was one of several public ceremonies held in Serbia on Saturday to mark the 13th anniversary of the NATO campaign, which destroyed much of Serbia's infrastructure and ended its rule in Kosovo.
Serbian authorities say at least 2,500 people were killed in the NATO bombings and 12,000 wounded. Independent assessments have put the number of civilian casualties far lower.
A glass and iron monument honoring all those killed in the 1990s Balkan wars was unveiled in Belgrade, the capital, on Saturday amid protests by both liberal groups and victims' families.
Altogether, about 10,000 people were killed during the Kosovo conflict, which erupted when independence-seeking ethnic Albanians launched a rebellion against Serbian rule. The brutality of Serbia's response to the rebellion prompted the NATO bombing to force it to withdraw its troops from Kosovo, which later declared independence in 2008.
Late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, government officials, top army and police officers have been tried over Kosovo crimes by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Despite all that, many Serbs still view the events of the 1999 as proof that the Western military alliance unjustly sided with their enemies.
For instance, on Saturday Serbian media vilified the NATO bombings as an "aggression," and state-run TV blamed those attacks for a growth of cancer victims in the country.
Still, liberals used the 13th anniversary to say politicians have done too little to face up to Serbia's wartime past and that could jeopardize the nation's bid to join the European Union.
"The politicians never really tried to explain things, to clearly say who was who," said Maja Micic of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights group.
Micic criticized the new monument in Belgrade, saying it should only honor the people Serbian forces killed during their warmongering in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in the 1990s.
But not everyone agreed.
Gacic Rosa, whose son, a soldier, died in the fighting, joined other Serbs in preventing a group of officials from approaching the new monument.
They said it should contain the names of all the Serbian soldiers who died.
"This is a humiliation," said Rosa.