Serb PM accuses NATO bombers of cynical land grab

(Adds quote from Kosovo prime minister, paragraphs 14-15)

BELGRADE, March 24 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica marked the anniversary of NATO's bombing of Serbia on Monday with an attack accusing the West of cynically grabbing territory in the name of humanitarian intervention.

"Now it is more than obvious that the cruel destruction of Serbia during the NATO bombardment had only one aim: to turn the province of Kosovo into the world's first NATO state," he told the state news agency Tanjug.

NATO began bombing strategic targets in Serbia on March 24, 1999, and kept it up for 78 days until the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic agreed to pull his forces from Kosovo and end the killing of Albanian civilians in a counter-insurgency war.

Launching the first war in its history, and freighted with a failure to act in Bosnia, the alliance said it would not stand by and watch another bloodbath in the Balkans by Serb forces.

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations and patrolled by NATO troops since June 11, 1999. Its 90 percent Albanian majority declared independence on Feb. 17 with Western support.

The European Union, which Serbia wants to join, plans to deploy a supervisory mission in the country, following a blueprint set out by United Nations envoy Martti Ahtisaari.

"The illegal construction of the huge American military base Bondsteel and Annex 11 of the Ahtisaari plan -- which enshrines NATO as the ultimate authority in Kosovo -- reveal the true reason why Serbia was mindlessly devastated and why on Feb. 17 a NATO state was illegally declared," Kostunica said.

When Serb voters toppled Milosevic in 2000 and elected Kostunica, the West greeted him as a reformist. But Kostunica is now the loudest voice of Serb nationalism, leaning to Russia for support and strongly anti-Western in his daily rhetoric.


Kostunica's 10-month-old coalition government collapsed this month under the strain of deep divisions over Kosovo. President Boris Tadic would not agree to freeze Serbia's EU aspirations as Kostunica wants, until it revokes its recognition of Kosovo.

Serbia faces a May 11 election with this as the key issue.

"The next two months are going to be potentially very difficult, if not dangerous," said former U.S. ambassador to Serbia, William Montgomery, in a weekly commentary.

He predicted Kostunica and fellow "isolationists" would try to keep Kosovo centre stage by means of provocations and confrontations with NATO and the United Nations.

"The Prime Minister will continue his tactic of taking hard, nationalistic positions and forcing his political opponents to choose between meekly swallowing their objections and following his lead like sheep or appearing 'unpatriotic'," he wrote.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a guerrilla in the 1998-99 conflict, said NATO fought for the right reasons.

"The people of Kosovo express their life-long gratitude to NATO and all countries that supported this just support of the highest values of western civilisation -- freedom, peace and democracy," he said in a statement. "Today Kosovo is free."

Kostunica on Sunday accused NATO troops and U.N. police of using "snipers and banned ammunition" to quell a riot in the Kosovo Serb stronghold of Mitrovica last week.

A Ukrainian U.N. policeman was killed by a Serb grenade and a Serb rioter badly wounded. The United Nations and NATO say the violence was instigated by Belgrade.

Defence Minister Dragan Sutanovac, of Tadic's pro-EU party, said the start of NATO bombing was "the saddest day in the recent history of our nation, when we showed that we didn't understand the world, and the world understood us even less."

"I hope we've learned the lesson from those events, that we think much more in political not military terms, and that it's better to negotiate for 100 years than to have a day of war." (Edited by Ibon Villelabeitia)