BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's parliament approved on Friday jail terms of up to eight years for anyone found guilty of fighting in foreign wars, in an effort to dissuade citizens from joining conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere.
The amendments to the criminal code may also be used to crack down on the lucrative business of mercenaries who have used their experience in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s to fight for money in places such as Sierra Leone, Algeria and more recently in Libya.
Dozens of Serbian Muslims from the Sandzak region, near to Kosovo and Bosnia, have gone to fight in Syria's civil war and at least three have died, local media have reported.
In Ukraine, dozens of Serbs, mostly hardline Orthodox Christians, have joined pro-Russian separatists battling Kiev's forces in the east of the country. Bratislav Zivkovic, commander of a battalion in Luhansk, told Reuters in July there were some 38 Serbs at that time in his unit.
The amendments provide for jail terms of six months to five years for individual fighters, up to eight years for those leaving as an organised fighting unit and between two and 10 years for those found guilty of recruiting mercenaries or volunteer fighters.
Other Balkan countries such as Bosnia and Kosovo have taken or plan to take similar steps to stem the number of their own citizens going to fight abroad, especially in Iraq and Syria.
Several western European nations including France and Britain have also recently toughened penalties for those who join overseas conflicts amid fears that they may return radicalised by the experience and may plot attacks on home turf.
There have been no reports of radicalised Serbian citizens returning home and posing a security threat but police keep the few who do return under tight surveillance.
"These amendments are good for those reluctant (to go), as they will think twice now," said Esad Kundakovic, a Serbian Muslim whose son Eldar was killed fighting in Syria last year.
"But if someone is determined to die, nothing will stop him."
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Gareth Jones)