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Erdogan receives warm welcome from Muslim Serbian town

2017-10-11

NOVI PAZAR – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan received a rapturous welcome on Wednesday during a visit to the Serbian town of Novi Pazar, capital of the Muslim majority Sandzak region that has seen mass emigration to Turkey since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.

Erdogan, on a two-day visit to Serbia, hopes to boost Turkey’s economic and cultural influence in the Balkan region, which was part of the Ottoman empire for centuries, at a time of increased tensions with the European Union and United States.

“We have special relations with this region. Your happiness is our happiness, your pain is our pain,” Erdogan told more than 10,000 people gathered in front of the municipality building.

“Sandzak is the biggest bridge linking us with our brothers in Serbia,” he said, with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic standing close by.

Turkish influence is already strong among fellow Muslims in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo, but mainly Orthodox Christian Serbia is traditionally much closer to Russia. However, Belgrade and Ankara, which both want to join the EU but are frustrated by the slow pace of progress, are keen to increase bilateral trade.

Erdogan said Turkey would finance the construction of a road linking Sandzak with the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, reconstruct an Ottoman-era hammam and build a bridge in Novi Pazar.

In Belgrade on Tuesday, Erdogan pledged gas and Turkish investments for the Balkans and he signed deals with Vucic to expand a bilateral free trade agreement.

In Novi Pazar, local people waved Turkish flags and the green and blue flags of Serbia’s Muslim community, and chanted Allahu Akbar (God is greatest). A big banner read “Welcome Sultan” and was signed by “Ottoman grandchildren”.

“Erdogan is our nation’s leader, Vucic is our state leader, this is the greatest day for us Muslims to have them both here,” Ismail Ismailovic, 28, from the nearby town of Tutin, farmer, sporting long beard and white embroidered Muslim skull cap.

It was a far cry from the 1990s when Serbia and Turkey were sharply at odds in the conflicts that tore apart Yugoslavia. Turkey sees itself as the historic defender of Muslims across the Balkan region.

“I know I am not going to be welcomed here like Erdogan is,” said Vucic, who was a firebrand Serbian nationalist during the wars of the 1990s but has turned strongly pro-EU. “But at least I can come out and say that I am working in your best interest.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85351.

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Unrepentant Mladic sentenced to life for Bosnia atrocities

November 22, 2017

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — An unrepentant Ratko Mladic, the bullish Bosnian Serb general whose forces rained shells and snipers’ bullets on Sarajevo and carried out the worst massacre in Europe since World War II, was convicted Wednesday of genocide and other crimes and sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Defiant to the last, Mladic was ejected from a courtroom at the United Nations’ Yugoslav war crimes tribunal after yelling at judges: “Everything you said is pure lies. Shame on you!” He was dispatched to a neighboring room to watch on a TV screen as Presiding Judge Alphons Orie pronounced him guilty of 10 counts that also included war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Human-rights organizations hailed the convictions as proof that even top military brass long considered untouchable cannot evade justice forever. Mladic spent years on the run before his arrest in 2011.

“This landmark verdict marks a significant moment for international justice and sends out a powerful message around the world that impunity cannot and will not be tolerated,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe director.

For prosecutors, it was a fitting end to a 23-year effort to mete out justice at the U.N. tribunal for atrocities committed during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. Mladic’s conviction signaled the end of the final trial before the tribunal closes its doors by the end of the year.

But legal battles will continue. Mladic’s attorneys vowed to appeal his convictions on 10 charges related to a string of atrocities from the beginning of the 1992-95 Bosnian war to its bitter end. “The defense team considers this judgment to be erroneous, and there will be an appeal, and we believe that the appeal will correct the errors of the trial chamber,” Mladic lawyer Dragan Ivetic said.

Mladic’s son, Darko, said his father told him after the verdict that the tribunal was a “NATO commission … trying to criminalize a legal endeavor of Serbian people in times of civil war to protect itself from the aggression.”

Presiding Judge Alphons Orie started the hearing by reading out a litany of horrors perpetrated by forces under Mladic’s control. “Detainees were forced to rape and engage in other degrading sexual acts with one another. Many Bosnian Muslim women who were unlawfully detained were raped,” Orie said.

The judge recounted the story of a mother who ventured into the streets during the deadly siege of Sarajevo with her son as Serb snipers and artillery targeted the Bosnian capital. She was shot. The bullet passed through her abdomen and struck her 7-year-old son’s head, killing him.

In Srebrenica, the war reached its bloody climax as Bosnian Serb forces overran what was supposed to be a U.N.-protected safe haven. After busing away women and children, Serb forces systematically murdered some 8,000 Muslim males.

“Many of these men and boys were cursed, insulted, threatened, forced to sing Serb songs and beaten while awaiting their execution,” Orie said. Mladic looked relaxed as the hearing started, greeting lawyers, crossing himself and giving a thumbs-up to photographers in court. But midway through the hearing Mladic’s lawyer, Dragan Ivetic, asked for a delay because the general was suffering from high blood pressure. The judge refused, Mladic started yelling and was tossed out of court.

When he started speaking, “it was not about his health but much more I think trying to insult the judges,” Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz said. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia erupted after the country’s breakup in the early 1990s, with the worst crimes taking place in Bosnia. More than 100,000 people died and millions lost their homes before a peace agreement was signed in 1995. Mladic went into hiding for around 10 years before his arrest in Serbia in May 2011.

Mladic’s political master during the war, former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, was also convicted last year for genocide and sentenced to 40 years. He has appealed the ruling. The man widely blamed for fomenting wars across the Balkans, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, died in his U.N. cell in 2006 before tribunal judges could reach verdicts in his trial.

The ethnic tensions that Milosevic stoked from Belgrade simmer to this day. Top Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik said the tribunal only underscored its anti-Serb bias by convicting Mladic. Dodik said the court was established with the “single purpose” of demonizing Serbs.

“This opinion is shared by all the Serbs,” Dodik said, describing Mladic as “a hero and a patriot.” Serbian President Alksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist who supported Mladic’s war campaigns but now casts himself as a pro-EU reformer, agreed that the court has been biased against Serbs but added that “we should not justify the crimes committed” by the Serbs.

“We are ready to accept our responsibility” for war crimes “while the others are not,” he said. For a former prisoner of Serb-run camps in northwestern Bosnia who was in The Hague, the verdict was sweet relief.

Fikret Alic became a symbol of the horrors in Bosnia after his skeletal frame was photographed by Time magazine behind barbed wire in 1992 in a Bosnian Serb camp. “Justice has won,” he said. “And the war criminal has been convicted.”

Associated Press writers Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Sabina Niksic and Amer Cohadzic in Sarajevo, Eldar Emric in Srebrenica and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

Serbia’s dethroned royals hold a wedding in Belgrade

October 07, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Although it’s not a kingdom now, Serbia has hosted a wedding for dethroned royals. Prince Philip Karadjordjevic, of the dethroned Serbian royals, married Danica Marinkovic on Saturday in a ceremony at Belgrade’s main cathedral.

The wedding was performed by the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, and attended by many public figures. Dozens gathered outside the church on a sunny but chilly autumn day. Philip is one of the sons of Crown Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic, the heir to Serbia’s now-defunct throne. The royal family ruled Yugoslavia until communists took power after World War II and abolished the monarchy. Exiled during WWII, the family returned to Serbia after 2000.

Philip was born in Fairfax, Virginia, while his wife is the daughter of prominent Serbian painter Cile Marinkovic.

Hundreds rally for free, fair elections in Serbian capital

October 06, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Several hundred people have gathered at an opposition protest demanding that an upcoming local election in the Serbian capital of Belgrade be free and fair. Opposition leaders have alleged that the ruling parties have been beefing up voters’ lists ahead of the ballot expected next spring. The authorities have denied this.

The Belgrade race is viewed as a test of President Aleksandar Vucic’s rule. Vucic swept the presidential elections earlier this year and his right-leaning coalition controls the government, but opposition parties are hoping to undermine his power in Belgrade.

Opposition leaders have accused Vucic of stifling democratic freedoms, exerting pressure on the media and threatening opponents. Protesters on Friday put forward a set of demands, including equal treatment in the media and international observers at the Belgrade vote.

Russia starts delivery of MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia

October 02, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Russia on Monday started delivering six MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia, part of Moscow’s promised military hardware that could worsen tensions in the war-weary Balkans. Two of the warplanes were transported, disassembled, on a Russian cargo plane that landed at a military airport near Belgrade on Monday afternoon. All six are to arrive by Oct. 20, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is expected in the Serbian capital.

Moscow is handing over the MiGs for free, but it’s estimated the overhaul of the secondhand aircraft will cost Serbia some 200 million euros ($235 million.) Russia has also promised the delivery of 30 battle tanks and 30 armored vehicles to Serbia, which was at war with its neighbors Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Monday that in addition to the jets, the country will boost its anti-aircraft defense. It has been negotiating the purchase of the Russian-made S-300 systems. “We will continue to protect our freedom and independence,” Vucic said.

Serbia has been on the path to join the European Union, but under political and propaganda pressure from Moscow it has steadily slid toward the Kremlin and its goal of keeping Balkan countries out of NATO and other Western bodies.

Serbia is a member of the Western military alliance’s Partnership for Peace program. A NATO official, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, said “the defense equipment which NATO’s partners procure is a sovereign choice for those countries. There are no restrictions imposed by NATO.”

Serbia’s archrival, NATO-member Croatia, is shopping for a new fighter to replace the nation’s aging MiG-21s. The two leading contenders for the planned contract reportedly include Israeli version of American Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and Swedish Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen.

AP Writer Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.

Ex-rebel Serb commander sentenced to 15 years in Croatia

September 26, 2017

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — A Croatian court on Tuesday sentenced a former Serb paramilitary commander and Australian citizen to 15 years in prison for war crimes in the 1990s, including the killing and torture of prisoners.

Judges at the municipal court in the coastal town of Split said that Dragan Vasiljkovic, also known as Captain Dragan and Daniel Snedden, is guilty of war crimes committed while he commanded Croatian Serb rebels during the 1991-95 war when Serbs took up arms against Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia.

The 62-year-old Vasiljkovic, who was born in Serbia, went to Australia as a teenager, but returned to the Balkans to train Croatian Serb rebels in 1991. In Australia, he was an army reservist and a golf instructor.

Vasiljkovic was extradited from Australia in July 2015 after a 10-year legal battle against being handed over to Croatia’s judiciary. He became Australia’s first extradited war crimes suspect. The three-judge Croatian court panel found Vasiljkovic guilty of two of the three charges, which included torturing and beating imprisoned Croatian police and army troops and commanding a special forces unit involved in the destruction of Croatian villages. He was found responsible for the death of at least two civilians.

“They were beating prisoners with their guns, … pushing gun barrels into their mouths,” judge Damir Romac said reading the verdict. “He (Vasiljkovic) did nothing to prevent this and punish the perpetrators.”

About 60 prosecution witnesses were questioned during the trial, including those who said they were tortured by Vasiljkovic. Vasiljkovic, who was widely believed during the war to be working for Serbia’s secret service, has claimed innocence throughout the one-year trial, saying the whole process was rigged.

“This is an oppressive fascist process,” Vasiljkovic said during his closing statements last week. “Not only did I not commit any crimes that I am charged with, I can only ask why I was brought here and charged in the first place.”

Serbia’s Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin blasted Vasiljkovic’s conviction as a “mockery of truth.” Vulin accused Croatia of fueling tensions in the Balkans with the ruling. The judges ruled that they will take into account the time Vasiljkovic served in detention in Australia and in a Croatian prison, meaning he has three-and-a-half years of his sentence remaining. His lawyers said they will appeal.

Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

Albania soccer federation fights fan’s extradition to Serbia

July 29, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s soccer federation is calling on Albanian authorities to stop the extradition to Serbia of a man who has claimed to have flown a drone carrying a nationalist banner over a stadium in Serbia, a display that prompted fan violence.

Ismail Morinaj was arrested in Croatia in June based on an arrest warrant from Serbia. A court in Dubrovnik agreed this week to extradite the 35-year-old Albanian to Belgrade. An Albanian Football Federation statement issued Saturday called on Albania’s government “to intervene within the legal context to stop extradition of Ismail Morinaj to Serbia.”

The federation assured Morinaj’s family it would keep fighting to prevent his extradition, saying it “is fully committed to exploiting all its institutional and diplomatic roads,” the statement said. Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has negotiated with Croatian authorities in the last two days “for the final solution of the process,” according to another statement from the federation.

Justice Minister Gazmend Bardhi also has formally asked Croatian authorities not to approve the Serbian request, arguing that “Albanian citizen Ismail Morina is endangered to suffer from politically motivated persecution or discrimination.”

A group of Albanian fans, Tifozet kuq e zi, (or Red and black fans, in English) has called for an evening rally in Albania’s capital, Tirana, to pressure the government to get involved. Morinaj, who is from the northeastern Kukes area but lives in Italy, has been a regular at the Albanian national team’s away matches.

His brother Xhevair complained to television station Report TV about the government’s lack of attention, saying Ismail’s life would be in danger in Serbia. “We call on the Albanian state to intervene and stop extradition to Serbia. We, as a family, would do something very radical which would surprise everyone,” he said without elaborating.

Violence interrupted an October 2014 European qualifying match between the Serbian and Albanian teams when a drone with an Albanian banner appeared over the pitch. The 0-0 game was suspended after Serbian fans injured some of the Albanian players who had tried rushing a Serbian player who pulled down the banner.

European soccer’s governing body ultimately awarded Albania the match victory, helping win the tiny western Balkan country a spot in the Euro 2016 finals, its first major tournament.

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