Serb leader praises Russian arms 21 years after NATO bombing

In this file photo taken Wednesday, April 6, 2016, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic inspects arms at the Batajnica military airport outside Belgrade, Serbia. President Vucic says his country has taken delivery of a sophisticated anti-aircraft system from Russia, despite possible U.S. sanctions against the Balkan state that formally seeks European Union membership. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s president thanked Russia on Saturday for making the country’s military “10 times” stronger than when it was bombed by NATO in 1999.

Aleksandar Vucic spoke Saturday while visiting an air defense unit near Belgrade that has recently been equipped with the Russian Pantsir-S1 system, which is designed to defend targets on the ground from cruise missiles, drones and low-flying aircraft.

“This is a great support for the defense of our towns, protection of our infrastructure and the strengthening of our military,” Vucic said. “We don’t want to attack anyone, we want to protect the future of our children.”

Vucic’s visit to the air defense unit coincided with the anniversary of the day a U.S. Air Force F-16 jet was shot down over Serbia 21 years ago. The pilot, David Goldfein, was rescued by American commandos in a hair-raising operation. Goldfein is now a general who serves as the U.S. Air Force chief of staff.

“I’m proud to be visiting the brigade that has shot down the F-16,” Vucic, who was Serbia’s information minister during the NATO intervention, said.

Russia’s arming of Serbia with warplanes, tanks and anti-aircraft systems is watched with unease in the Balkans and the West amid simmering tensions in the region which went through a devastating civil war in the 1990s.

NATO intervened in Serbia to stop a bloody Serb crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists in 1999. Russia, led at the time by President Boris Yeltsin, stayed largely on sidelines.

Despite formally seeking European Union membership, Serbia under Vucic’s populist leadership has strengthened close political and military ties with Slavic ally Russia and China.

Serbia has pledged to stay out of NATO and refused to join Western sanctions against Russia for its policies in Ukraine.

Vucic’s visit to the military base took place amid growing popular discontent in Serbia over the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his government’s lockdown measures.

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