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'God's Punishment': Serbian Tabloids Say Notre Dame Fire Result Of Flying Kosovo's Flag

The spire of Notre Dame Cathedral collapses as smoke and flames engulf the iconic building in Paris on April 15. (file photo)

As investigators comb through the debris to find the cause of the fire that gutted the world-famous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, two Serbian tabloids claim to know the real cause of the blaze in the 12th century Gothic church: a fluttering Kosovar flag.

The Alo and Informer tabloids -- which are closely linked to the Serbian government -- posted reports on their websites on April 15 saying the tragic fire was "God’s punishment" for the flying of the Kosovar flag along with several others during a November ceremony at the cathedral to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Notre Dame displayed the "fake state Kosovo's" flag and therefore "is now being destroyed by a disastrous fire," a report on the Informer website said, showing a photo with smoke billowing from the cathedral along with an inset photo of the vestibule with several flags, including Kosovo’s, hanging from it.

The Informer website later withdrew the report without explanation.

A screen-grab from the website of Informer, a Serbian tabloid that said the fire in Notre Dame was "God's punishment."
A screen-grab from the website of Informer, a Serbian tabloid that said the fire in Notre Dame was "God's punishment."

The Alo website added that the flag display last year at Notre Dame was like "spitting on Serbian victims" from the brutal war in Kosovo during the 1990s' breakup of Yugoslavia -- thus the fire was punishment for flying Kosovo's flag.

Alo later also took down its story without explaining why.

A former province of Serbia, Kosovo declared independence in 2008, nearly a decade after the 1998-99 war that ended with NATO air strikes on Serbia that forced Belgrade to withdraw its troops from Kosovo -- ending a conflict that killed some 13,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

Kosovo's 1.8 million population is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian with about 5 percent ethnic Serbs, and parts of the country are deeply divided along ethnic lines.

Western powers are hoping Kosovo can mature into a stable, multiethnic state.

To that end, there are some 5,000 NATO troops still stationed in Kosovo, which is recognized by more than 115 countries but not Serbia, Russia, China, or five of the European Union's 28 members.

At the time of the flag furor, officials at Notre Dame said the choice of flags that were flown at the ceremony was based on a list of invited officials drawn up by the French government.

Many Serbs were further enraged by the commemoration when Kosovar President Hashim Thaci was seated near Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was positioned far away on the opposite side in a less prominent position.

Russia is a traditional ally of Serbia and refuses to acknowledge Kosovo's independence.

Vucic himself tweeted support for France as the fire raged on April 15, saying all Serbs are saddened by what happened at the church, which is visited by an estimated 13 million people each year.

"We are with our French friends and we are ready to help the renewal of this symbol of French and world civilization," he wrote.

French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild the monument described as the soul of the nation and voiced relief that "the worst had been avoided" in a blaze that had at one point threatened the entire building.

Although the spire and much of the roof of the 850-year-old medieval structure -- one of the world's most visited landmarks -- collapsed, the main structure, including the two bell towers, was saved, and most of the treasured artwork and religious artifacts were safely taken away from the fire.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service