By JOVANA GEC
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 3:25 PM
BELGRADE, Serbia -- Serbian nationalists demanded that the government cancel plans to host a NATO conference later this year, as the country marked on Thursday the 12th anniversary of the start of the military alliance's bombing that ended Belgrade's rule in Kosovo.
Democratic Party of Serbia described the plan to hold the annual NATO event in Belgrade in June as "shameful for the country and the nation." The opposition party led by former Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica threatened to organize protests if the conference takes place.
"All the ruins and dead bodies that NATO left behind reflect the real nature or that organization," party official Milos Jovanovic said during an event dubbed "Never in NATO" in central Belgrade, marking the start of the air strikes on March 24, 1999.
Serbian nationalists have also criticized Western bombing of Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya, comparing it to the NATO bombing of Serbia. So did Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic.
"There are not many citizens of Serbia who could remain indifferent when they see what is happening in Libya," Jeremic said. "We have experienced the tragic attacks on our country and the suffering of civilians. Therefore, we strongly sympathize with these friendly (Libyan) people."
An online pro-Gadhafi movement from Serbia gathered thousands of supporters on Facebook. The pro-Gadhafi movement called for a protest against the Libya strikes to be held this weekend in Belgrade.
Serbian officials lit candles and lay wreaths Thursday to commemorate hundreds of victims of the 78-day NATO bombing, launched to stop then-President Slobodan Milosevic's onslaught against the ethnic Albanian rebels in Kosovo.
The strikes forced Milosevic to relinquish control over Kosovo to the United Nations and NATO. Serbia's former province declared independence in 2008, a move Belgrade refuses to endorse, but which has the backing of the United States and most EU nations.
Although relations with NATO have improved since the 1999 war - and some pro-Western government officials spoke of joining the alliance - resentment against NATO remains high, particularly among nationalists who advocate closer ties with Russia - Serbia's key ally in efforts to retain claim on Kosovo.
During his visit to Belgrade on Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was quoted as telling Serbian lawmakers that Kremlin does not want Belgrade to join NATO.
If Serbia joins NATO, the alliance "will make all the decisions," Putin reportedly said. "If NATO deploys its rocket systems in Serbia, Russia will be forced to direct its nuclear potential toward Serbia."
Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.