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Serbs Mark 4th Anniversary of Air Strikes

March 24, 2003

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) _ Television images of Baghdad ablaze triggered painful memories for Ljubica Knez, who endured similar terror when a U.S.-led air war began four years ago Monday to break Slobodan Milosevic’s grip on Kosovo.

``The wailing of air raid sirens in the Iraqi capital sends shivers down my spine,″ said Knez, a 45-year-old housewife.

``I still remember the knot in my stomach as I rushed for shelter with my daughter on that fateful March 24″ in 1999, she said. ``I sympathize with Iraqi mothers, but not with Saddam Hussein.″

NATO launched the campaign to stop Milosevic’s crackdown on the independence-minded ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia.

After 78 days of airstrikes, Milosevic was forced to pull his troops out of the province, which is now administered by the United Nations and NATO. Sixteen months later, Milosevic was toppled from power in a popular revolt.

``In Iraq, the Americans are making the same mistake as in Serbia,″ said Bratislav Grubacic, a prominent Serbian political analyst.

``In both cases, they had predicted a quick and easy victory,″ he said. ``But they forgot that by cornering such dictators as Saddam and Milosevic, they had given them no choice but to fight until the last drop of blood _ the blood of their own people.″

Milosevic is now on trial at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, for atrocities his forces committed in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia during Yugoslavia’s bloody breakup in the 1990s.

``Thank God that the Americans did not send ground troops to ‘liberate’ Serbia like they are now doing in Iraq,″ said Dejan Zorkic, a medical student. ``Milosevic would still be ruling here,″ he added, alluding to the unexpected resistance that U.S. forces are meeting in Iraq.

Zorkic also noted the still-strong anti-American sentiment in Serbia four years after the war.

``Americans have not learned the Serbian lesson: Going after dictators while punishing ordinary people does not bring them allies and friends.

Serbs marked Monday’s anniversary by attending a church service that honored the estimated 2,000 Serbian soldiers, police officers and civilians killed during the NATO bombardment.

At least 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed by Serb forces before and during the NATO airstrikes, and thousands remain missing.

In Kosovo on Monday, President Ibrahim Rugova said the first day of the bombing of Serbia had been a ``historic day.″

``In this day of celebration for Kosovo, we greet President Bush, who together with Prime Minister Tony Blair are leading the coalition forces in Iraq for freedom and democracy of that country and for strengthening of the world peace,″ Rugova said.

Unlike in Serbia, most of the ethnic Albanians who dominate Kosovo support the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

``Today, I am very convinced that (force) was the only way to get rid of Milosevic as well as leaders like Saddam Hussein,″ said Kadire Demolli, 35, a primary school teacher. ``Bombs are the only way to oust dictators.″

Otpor, or Resistance _ an independent Serbian group that helped oust Milosevic in October 2000 _ disagrees.

``It is regrettable that from the tragic example of Serbia, mankind has not learned how devastating wars are,″ it said in a statement. ``Every war brings tragedy both to winners and to losers.″

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