Air-raid sirens wailed Tuesday as Serbia marked the 10th anniversary of NATO's bombing campaign against the regime of late President Slobodan Milosevic to halt its violent Kosovo crackdown.
Solemn ceremonies were held at Belgrade monuments to children and journalists killed in the NATO sorties as the sirens were sounded across the ex-Yugoslav republic for 60 seconds from midday (1200 CET).
Ministers gathered at the same time to lay wreaths at spots where people were killed during the air war -- at the time the biggest military operation in NATO history.
"The attack on our country was illegal, contrary to international law, without a decision by the United Nations" Security Council, Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic told a special commemorative sitting of his cabinet.
"The air strikes have not solved problems in Kosovo, and did not help to bring peace and the rule of law.
"They resulted in ethnic cleansing and gross violations of human rights, international standards and fresh tensions," he said, after schools held a minute's silence before class.
Kosovo leaders said however the NATO bombing stopped Serbian abuses in their breakaway territory and was a decisive step towards saving and freeing its people.
"The 78 days of strikes saved the people of Kosovo from planned extermination, a scenario which was prepared coldly by the highest Serb political and academic circles," Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu said.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci described the bombing as "a big historic event for Kosovo and the democratic world."
"The successful completion of the campaign of intervention by NATO opened a new chapter in the history of Kosovo, a chapter of freedom," said Thaci.
Anniversary of campaign to stop Milosevic
NATO launched the strikes on March 24, 1999 after Milosevic refused to sign up to a peace deal to end his forces' crackdown on the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the ethnic Albanian majority in the southern territory.
It set out to destroy military targets, and went on to strike infrastructure and the Milosevic propaganda machine. Some strikes went astray, hitting scores of civilian sites and even China's embassy in Belgrade.
Milosevic eventually conceded 78 days later, paving the way for NATO to enter Kosovo.
Some 15,000 NATO-led peacekeepers remain in Kosovo, which 56 nations recognize after its ethnic Albanian-dominated parliament declared unilateral independence from Serbia 13 months ago.
As part of Serbian commemorations, the bells of Orthodox churches were to be tolled for the victims at 7:45 pm (1845 GMT) -- the moment NATO's first attacks were launched 10 years ago.
Wounds still open in Serbia
Separately, a hard-line nationalist group planned to stage an anti-NATO rally in the main square of Belgrade, according to posters that have gone up around Serbia's capital.
Serbian media seized on the opportunity of the anniversary to rake over the coals of a conflict that may have ended a decade ago but one which remains very much in the national consciousness.
"Serbs got bombs, the Albanians got a state," the daily Blic said in its report.
Belgrade contends that NATO, by acting without a UN mandate and by bombing civilian targets and using controversial ordnance, broke international laws because it was biased in favor of Albanians.
Human Rights Watch put the civilian death toll from the bombing campaign at around 500.
Milosevic's government estimated the NATO strikes killed more than 1,000 soldiers and 2,500 civilians, including 89 children, while 12,500 people were wounded and at least $30 billion in damage caused.
"A decade of the crime against Serbia," the daily Press said, while Politika wrote of the "Bombing that was never declared a war."
Under the headline "Days of death and destruction," Vecernje Novosti recounted half a dozen personal stories, including those of families who lost children and of a military pilot who was shot down by NATO.
Health concerns also remain about the danger to civilians from weapons NATO used during the campaign.
Thousands risk life and limb from cluster bomblets still scattered across Serbia as well as from depleted uranium, according to European non-governmental groups.
A "humanitarian intervention"
Many analysts contend the "humanitarian intervention" was necessary to prevent any recurrence of events like the 1995 Srebrenica massacre by Bosnian Serbs of some 8,000 Muslims -- Europe's worst atrocity since World War II.
Up to 9,000 people were killed in Kosovo's 1998-1999 conflict, mostly ethnic Albanians.
"What is often forgotten about the bombing is the context and the context was the failure to act in Bosnia, culminating in the Srebrenica massacre," Tim Judah, a prominent British author on the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
"The KLA were no angels but Srebrenica changed everything. After that there was no guarantee that Serbian forces might not do such a thing again," Judah told reporters.
"As to whether it was worth it -- a classic 'what if' of history. It was short (ish) and brutal but if it had not been for the bombing we might still be living with a rumbling and brutal insurgency and low level conflict."
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