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BELGRADE (Reuters) - The European Union praised Serbia on Wednesday for acknowledging its troubled past after parliament in Belgrade apologized over the 1995 killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.
Nearly 13 hours of debate that ended after midnight highlighted deep divisions about Serbia's wartime past at a time when the country aspires to join the EU.
"This is an important step for the country in facing its recent past, a process which is difficult but essential for Serbian society to go through," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a joint statement with Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule.
"This is not only important for Serbia, it is the key for the reconciliation for the whole region."
The Serbian resolution expressed sympathy to the victims and apologized for not doing enough to prevent the massacre, but stopped short of calling the killings "genocide."
The measure was approved by 127 of the 149 deputies present in parliament. Some opposition parties left the chamber shortly before the vote.
"With this (declaration) the people of Serbia demonstrated they want to distance themselves from that monstrous crime," Serbian President Boris Tadic told a news conference.
The ruling coalition of Tadic's pro-Western Democrats and Socialists -- who were led by strongman Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s -- hopes to win EU and investor favor with the measure.
Tadic called it a display of patriotism and a signal of Serbia's desire for regional reconciliation, dismissing criticism it acted under global pressure. "This is our decision. Serbia is doing this for itself," he said.
Bosnian Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic killed about 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys after taking over the eastern enclave that was put under U.N. protection. The massacre is Europe's worst atrocity since World War Two.
One Western diplomat stationed in Bosnia when the Srebrenica massacre occurred said passing the resolution without arresting Mladic meant little.
"As a substitute, it's offensive, it's an insult. Done in tandem with a legal step, then it's significant," the diplomat said. "If they think they can let Mladic run free for another 15 years, it's a grave injustice."
Belgrade applied for European Union membership in December but must capture and send Mladic to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague before starting talks. The former general, hailed as a hero by many Serbs, is believed to be hiding in Serbia.
The EU statement said full cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal, including the arrest and handing over of the remaining fugitives, was crucial to Serbia's entry prospects.
For some parliamentarians, the resolution was unjust for ignoring war crimes against Serbs.
In Srebrenica "the crime was no greater than in other places," said opposition deputy Velimir Ilic, citing neighboring Croatia's moves against Serbs during the war.
Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic told Reuters last week the resolution should help improve strained ties with Bosnia.
"Srebrenica for us is an event that in the long run should open the door for future cooperation," he said.
Yet many in Bosnia, where 100,000 died during the 1992-95 war, found the Serbian resolution too little, too late.
"Many criminals who slaughtered and killed our children fled to Serbia where they live as free citizens and enjoy full rights," said Munira Subasic, the head of a Srebrenica women's association who lost her son and husband in the killings there.
"There is no apology for the crimes. Justice can only be served once all the criminals responsible for the atrocity are named and held accountable," she told Reuters Television.
Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic and Fedja Grulovic in Belgrade and Miran Jelenek in Sarajevo; editing by Noah Barkin and Paul Taylor