Biden offers condolences for 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday offered condolences to the families of those who lost their lives during the Balkan wars, including the victims of the NATO air war against Serbia.

As a senator, Biden was a strong advocate of the NATO bombing of Serbia in the 1990s. He once said that his work to end the Yugoslav wars was one of the "proudest moments" of his long political career.

The U.S.-led bombardment in 1999 stopped Serbia's crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists, ending Belgrade's rule over its former province of Kosovo. The alliance's intervention, when thousands were killed, shifted many Serbs from their generally pro-Western views, toward their traditional Slavic ally Russia.

"The memories of the loss of the loved ones are still fresh," Biden told reporters after his talks with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.

"I would like to add my condolences to the families of those whose lives were lost during the wars in the 1990s, including those whose lives were lost as the result of the NATO campaign," he said.

The bloody breakup of former Yugoslavia claimed tens of thousands of lives and left millions homeless in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Ethnic tensions remain high in the Balkans, with neighbors bickering over who was the most responsible for the bloodshed.

Biden, on his last trip to the Balkans as a senior American official, traveled later Tuesday to Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Biden's visit underscores Washington's desire to maintain influence in the Balkans as Moscow works to keep Serbia — one of Russia's last remaining allies in the region — within its fold. The trip also highlights Washington's worry about the slow pace of regional reconciliation 17 years after the NATO air war and 21 years after a Bosnia peace deal was signed.

Some 300 ultranationalist supporters, some wearing T-shirts with pictures of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, protested against Biden's visit in downtown Belgrade.

Biden said in Belgrade that Serbia, being the most populous nation in Western Balkans, is crucial for peace in the region.

Vucic, a former ultranationalist turned pro-EU reformer, pledged Serbia's commitment to peace in the region, warning the simmering tensions in the Balkans could lead to more clashes.

"Only a spark is needed for chaos," he said.

In Pristina, Biden is expected to urge Kosovo leaders to implement an EU-sponsored agreement that is meant to normalize relations between the breakaway state and Serbia.

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