Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic blasted NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign of his country, claiming it was “a crime” that led to the deaths of 2,500 civilians and billions of dollars in damage.
However, neighboring Kosovo, which was the beneficiary of the attack, on March 24 said it will “forever be grateful” to the Western military alliance and the United States for intervening to help stop the bloodshed in the region.
Serbia and Kosovo were both marking the 20th anniversary of NATO’s 78-day air campaign in what was then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The onslaught began on March 24, 1999, and helped end Belgrade's crackdown against ethnic Albanians in its then-province Kosovo.
Belgrade was a major target of the Western alliance’s warplanes during the attack, and Serbian leaders eventually acceded to Western demands and retreated from Kosovo.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. Although more than 110 countries recognize Kosovo, Belgrade does not.
"The death of 2,500 civilians, of 79 children, the devastation of the country, damage running into tens of billions of dollars, it will always be a crime for us," Vucic told a ceremony in the city of Nis, about 250 kilometers south of Belgrade.
"We were alone in the face of the biggest military power in the world. Their goal was clear: to beat us and humiliate us, and then give part of our territory to someone else," he said.
Rights groups put a lower figure on the death toll but still say that several hundred people died in the bombing campaign.
Long a nationalist, Vucic has attempted to remake himself as a pro-European reformer while seeking to maintain good relations with traditional ally Russia as well.
He has stated a goal to join the EU, but he told the crowd at Nis that "the Serbian people have made the dignified decision that they do not want Serbia to join NATO."
In Kosovo, President Hashim Thaci -- who at the time served as a political leader of ethnic Albanian rebels -- said it was a "great and glorious" day when the NATO bombings commenced 20 years ago.
Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, a former rebel commander, said the day “marked a turnaround. Our people looked to the sky during the intervention, saying, 'There is a god.'"
"We will forever be grateful to NATO and the United States," Haradinaj added.
In Belgrade, ambassadors from eight Western countries -- Canada, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Britain, and the United States -- paid their respects to civilian victims at a monument in the capital.
"We remember March 24 as the day diplomacy failed, and we express our sincere regret for the loss of civilian lives during the events of 1999," they said in a joint statement.
Meanwhile, Vucic continued to face a differing set of political pressures in his home country.
On March 23, thousands of Serbs took to the streets of Belgrade and other cities in protest against what they say is Vucic's autocratic rule, the 16th week in a row of anti-government demonstrations.
Most of the protesters are demanding Vucic's resignation, freedom of the press, and fair elections.
But the demonstrators are a diverse group, with many pressing individual demands, and include leaders from the Alliance for Serbia, a loose grouping of about 30 parties and movements.
Protest organizers have resisted attempts by some far-right opposition politicians to take control of the demonstrations.