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Twenty Years on, Serbian victims of NATO bombings feel forgotten

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Surdulica (Serbia): On the outskirts of the southern Serbian town of Surdulica a black cross looms above a grave covered in a tangle of weeds.
This is the final resting place of some of the hundreds of civilians killed by the NATO air attacks launched 20 years ago this Sunday, a tragedy survivors feel is as forgotten as the overgrown burial ground.
“No one except for journalists has called us or asked if we need any help, how we feel. Nobody,” said 34-year-old Ivana Mitic.
Mitic’s brother, grandmother, uncle, aunt and cousins died when a NATO bomb razed their home on a residential street in Surdulica on April 27, 1999, in what the Alliance later admitted had been a “mistake”.
NATO’s three-month bombardment was an effort to halt Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a southern province that later declared independence.
On its 20th anniversary, many will celebrate the intervention for having ended the final war in Yugoslavia’s collapse, in which 13,000 were killed, mostly Kosovo Albanians.
But in Serbia the air strikes left their own trail of death and trauma in their wake.
For 78-days, NATO aircraft bombed Serbian military and civilian targets across the country, killing some 500 civilians according to Human Rights Watch. The victims included Serbs, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Roma.
The civilian deaths were never investigated by international courts, despite rights groups saying that some incidents could have violated international law or even constitute war crimes.
Mitic was 14 at the time of the bombings. Her parents were only able to identify the nine dead by the clothes, jewelry and shoes pulled out from the rubble of their house, she recalled.
“Nobody has ever come to tell us who is accountable for that crime,” she added, trembling at the memory.
The bomb that crushed Mitic grandfather’s house was one of numerous “errors” NATO admitted to afterwards.
Speaking in Brussels several days later, a spokesman for the alliance said: “One bomb went astray… Things like this can happen and in fact they happened.”
A month later on the other side of Surdulica, 21 more people were killed when NATO fired on a nursing home at midnight on May 30, 1999.
Retired doctor Miroslav Stosic, 71, was one of the rescuers who arrived at the “horrible scene” strewn with dismembered bodies. They were later buried under the cross.
“We stood here for the entire night and tried to protect the remains” from stray dogs, he told AFP.
Most of the victims were refugees from Croatia who were being housed in the complex.
According to Stosic, they had been transferred to the site, trading places with soldiers previously been based there.
NATO launched “Operation Allied Force”, without backing from the UN Security Council, after Milosevic refused to sign a peace deal to end the war.
Among the mistakes NATO admitted to was a strike on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade that killed three people. The US said outdated maps had led the pilot to the wrong target.


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International

Sri Lanka bombings death toll rises to 359, 18 more suspects held overnight

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Colombo: Police say the death toll in the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka has risen to 359 and more suspects have been arrested.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara also said Wednesday morning that 18 suspects were arrested overnight, raising the total detained to 58.
The prime minister warned that several suspects armed with explosives were still at large.
Another top government official said the suicide bombings at the churches, hotels and other sites were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists in apparent retaliation for the New Zealand mosque massacre last month.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the Sri Lanka attacks and released images that purported to show the attackers. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that investigators were still determining the extent of the bombers’ foreign links.

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UN says over 250 killed, over 1,200 injured in Libya battle

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TRIPOLI: At least 264 people have been killed and over 1,200 wounded in weeks of fighting on the outskirts of Libya’s capital, the World Health Organisation said , as African leaders gathered in Cairo to discuss the crisis.
The agency called on Twitter for “a temporary cessation of hostilities, and for all parties to respect humanitarian law”.
Eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on the capital on April 4, as his self-styled Libyan National Army pledged “to purge the west of terrorists and mercenaries”.
Forces loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, launched a counter-attack at the weekend.
The fighting has since eased somewhat as both sides appeared to be preparing for the next phase of the battle.
Fighting in Tripoli’s southern suburbs has so far displaced at least 35,000 people, UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya Maria do Valle Ribeiro said on Monday.
“Displacement is continuing at an increasing rate every day,” she said, warning that the figures were a conservative estimate.
The two sides have reached a near stalemate since armed groups backing the GNA launched their counter-attack on Saturday.
An AFP team on the ground at the weekend confirmed that GNA-aligned fighters had pushed the frontline back several kilometres in the southern district of Ain-Zara, around a dozen kilometres south of the city centre.
Another frontline is a little further southwest, around the districts of al-Swani and Qasr ben-Ghachir, around 30 kilometres from Tripoli, on a key road between the capital and the old international airport.
Occasional bursts of gunfire — and heavier projectiles — have been audible, sometimes resonating in the city centre.
“It is calm on most fronts,” Mustafa al-Mejii, a spokesman for GNA forces, said.
“Orders were given to forces on the perimeter of Tripoli airport to consolidate their positions,” he said.
Haftar’s force said on its official Facebook page it had received “significant” reinforcements, particularly in the west.
Valle Ribeiro said civilians were being displaced every day, while some had been trapped by fire including “heavy artillery and… shelling in some densely populated parts of the city”.
“Any country that has leverage should be using that leverage to ensure that civilians can be protected,” she said.
African leaders were due to meet in Cairo at the behest of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss the violence.

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Israel to name Golan settlement after Trump

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JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he plans to name a new settlement in the occupied Golan after US President Donald Trump in appreciation of his recognition of Israel’s claim of sovereignty there.
Netanyahu, who has been on a trip to the region with his family for the week-long Passover holiday, said in a video message that he would present a resolution to the government calling for a new settlement named after the US president.
“All Israelis were deeply moved when President Trump made his historic decision to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” he said.
Trump again broke with longstanding international consensus on March 25 when he recognised Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the part of the strategic plateau it seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The decision came only two weeks ahead of a tightly contested Israeli election, which saw Netanyahu win a fifth term in office.
Trump has shifted US policy sharply in Israel’s favour since taking office, most notably by recognising the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Israel annexed 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan it seized in 1981, a move never recognised by the international community.
Around 18,000 Syrians from the Druze sect — most of whom refuse to take Israeli citizenship — remain in the occupied Golan.
Some 20,000 Israeli settlers have moved there, spread over 33 settlements.

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