US and Serbia seek to boost military co-operation

05/07/2006

Seven years after the Kosovo conflict, two US Air Force F-16s made a historic landing in Belgrade -- a symbol of improving ties.

By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade – 05/07/06

photo

Serbian soldier and a US Marine stand guard by the Serbian flag in front of Mig-21 airplane at the Batajnica military airport near Belgrade on 23 June. [Getty Images]

Two US Air Force F-16s touched down at Belgrade's Batajnica military airport on 23 June, making an historic visit. It was the first time since World War II that American fighter jets have landed at a Serbian Air Force airport. According to the defence ministry, the event was part of efforts to improve military co-operation between Serbia and the United States.

Soon after, a top-ranking Serbian military delegation, headed by acting Chief of Staff General Zdravko Ponos, arrived in Washington for talks at the Pentagon. This too was a milestone: the first visit by a Serbian chief of staff to the Pentagon in 20 years.

Speaking at Batajnica airport, US Ambassador Michael Polt said US Air Forces Europe will sponsor the training of Serbian pilots at the US Air Force Academy. The first pilots could arrive for training as early as 2007, Polt said, adding that the Serbian armed forces would continue their close co-operation with the National Guard in the US state of Ohio.

From now on, 23 June will be a special day in relations between the two militaries, Polt said. It signifies the start of a new era in co-operation amid the global fight against terrorism and trafficking in people, weapons and drugs, he added.

"We were close allies in two world wars. Serbs and Americans fought Nazism in Europe and many American servicemen owe their lives to their rescuers from Serbia … The United States is willing to move forward as fast as Serbia is able to," Polt said.

US Major Andrew Wills was one of the two pilots who landed at Batajnica last month. In 1999, he took part in NATO's air campaign against the former Yugoslavia.

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"When you are a soldier, you must do what you are told and separate your feelings from your job. Still, the year 1999 is behind us and this is a chance to establish friendly relations between our two countries. No hard feelings," Wills said.

During Ponos' visit to the Pentagon, the focus was on what Serbia needs to complete defence reforms.

No conditions were set, Ponos said. "We definitely did not go over there to be told what to do or how to do it … Partnership was the key word in our discussions," he added.

Next week, Serbia and United States will have another chance to boost ties. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica will be in Washington on 11 July, at the invitation of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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