NATO meeting opens in Serbia amid protests


A NATO meeting aimed at international military cooperation opened in Belgrade where lingering bitterness over the 1999 bombing campaign of the city sparked protests against the event.

While Serbia is not a member of the alliance, it is hosting the two-day Strategic Military Partner Conference in a further sign of the government’s desire to open a new chapter in relations with the West.

“The risks and challenges in the modern globalised world are the same for everyone and demand the development of a partnership to face them,” Serbia’s armed forces chief of staff Miloje Miletic said at the opening of the meeting on Tuesday.

Serbia’s decision to host the meeting sparked protests in Belgrade Sunday and Monday.

According to a poll in April, only 15 per cent support Serbia’s membership, while 75 per cent have a “negative opinion” of NATO in a sign of the residual enmity over the 1999 campaign aimed at halting the war in Kosovo.

Official figures from the government of the time put the death toll from the bombing — which was launched without UN Security Council backing — at around 2,500, although Human Rights Watch put the figure at around 500.

The gathering also comes less than three weeks since Serbian security forces captured former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic after 16 years on the run in a move seen as key to Belgrade’s hopes of joining the European Union.

Serbia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program — a cooperation framework for NATO membership aspirants — in 2006, while military officers and civilians have participated in various alliance activities.

But Belgrade, which has close ties to Russia, adopted a policy of military neutrality the following year.

Officials insist that the conference would not herald any further steps towards NATO membership.

Serbian membership “will not be on the agenda during this meeting,” State Secretary of the Serbian Ministry of Defence Tanja Miscevic told Vecernje Novosti daily Tuesday.

The delegates to the talks include chiefs of staff, or their deputies, from NATO and non-NATO member countries with Supreme Allied Commander Transformations, French General Stephane Abrial, chairing the event.

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