BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's defense minister on Saturday praised a convicted war criminal for his role against NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo, saying Serbia no longer has to be ashamed of a bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists.
The remarks by Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin illustrate Serbia's increasing defiance of the West. Serbia is formally seeking European Union membership but at the same time is edging closer to longtime Slavic ally Russia.
"The time of shame is gone. It's time for a quiet pride," Vulin said in the central Serbian town of Nis.
He was flanked by former Gen. Vladimir Lazarevic, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison by a U.N. war crimes tribunal for atrocities committed by Serb troops in Kosovo during NATO's bombardment, which stopped the crackdown.
Lazarevic, the commander of Serb troops during the Kosovo war that left some 10,000 people dead and thousands homeless, was released from prison after serving two-thirds of his sentence.
Vulin said Lazarevic and other Serb soldiers who fought in Kosovo "have the reason to be marked as the best among the best and the bravest among the brave."
Moscow has backed Belgrade's bid to maintain its claim over Kosovo — a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008 with the support of Washington and its allies.
Serbia has never recognized the independence of Kosovo.