BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Russia on Monday started delivering six MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia, part of Moscow's promised military hardware that could worsen tensions in the war-weary Balkans.
Two of the warplanes were transported, disassembled, on a Russian cargo plane that landed at a military airport near Belgrade on Monday afternoon. All six are to arrive by Oct. 20, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is expected in the Serbian capital.
Moscow is handing over the MiGs for free, but it's estimated the overhaul of the secondhand aircraft will cost Serbia some 200 million euros ($235 million.)
Russia has also promised the delivery of 30 battle tanks and 30 armored vehicles to Serbia, which was at war with its neighbors Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Monday that in addition to the jets, the country will boost its anti-aircraft defense. It has been negotiating the purchase of the Russian-made S-300 systems.
"We will continue to protect our freedom and independence," Vucic said.
Serbia has been on the path to join the European Union, but under political and propaganda pressure from Moscow it has steadily slid toward the Kremlin and its goal of keeping Balkan countries out of NATO and other Western bodies.
Serbia is a member of the Western military alliance's Partnership for Peace program.
A NATO official, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, said "the defense equipment which NATO's partners procure is a sovereign choice for those countries. There are no restrictions imposed by NATO."
Serbia's archrival, NATO-member Croatia, is shopping for a new fighter to replace the nation's aging MiG-21s. The two leading contenders for the planned contract reportedly include Israeli version of American Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Swedish Saab's JAS-39 Gripen.
AP Writer Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.