Serbia thankful to Russia for boosting its military

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's president on Friday praised Russia for sending sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to joint air defense drills, the first such deployment by Moscow to a country seeking to join the European Union.

Visiting a military airport near Belgrade, Aleksandar Vucic declared himself impressed by what Russia's surface-to-air systems could do, saying he was "thankful to our Russian friends for drastically boosting our defense capabilities."

The Russian Defense Ministry said that the long-range S-400 and the short-range Pantsyr-S systems were taking part in the Slavic Shield-2019 exercise that envisages joint action by the Russian and Serbian militaries to fend off air attacks. The S-400 is to be returned to Russia after the six-day drills, while Vucic said the Pantsyr system was purchased by his government.

Serbia remains Russia only ally in the Balkans, despite a proclaimed goal of joining the EU. Belgrade has pledged to stay out of NATO and refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.

Serbia was also due Friday to sign a free trade agreement with a Russian-led economic bloc despite warnings from the EU that it could jeopardize its membership bid.

"We are talking about fantastic systems," Vucic said after attending a computer-simulated anti-aircraft drill. "If we had S-400, no one would dare overfly Serbia."

Serbia was bombed by NATO in 1999 to stop a bloody crackdown against Kosovo Albanians, an experience that left Serbs with a deep mistrust of the Western military alliance. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move Belgrade and Moscow don't recognize.

Russia has been helping Serbia beef up its military with fighter jets, attack helicopters and battle tanks, raising concerns in the war-scarred Balkan region. During the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Serbia was at war with neighbors Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

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