Vučić .jpg
Photograph: EPA/ANDREJ CUKIC

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Belgrade on Friday that NATO would remove restrictions in Serbia's air space that had been in force since 1999, including lifting a ban on flights within a 25-kilometre zone near the border with Kosovo.

The Kosovo Force (KFOR) will completely lift the flight ban today, which means that restrictions on parts of Serbia's air space no longer exist. That means Serbia's full integration with Europe's air space, Stoltenberg said after talks with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic at a joint news conference.

"We believe that after 16 years we will be able to put up radars and control our entire air space," Vucic said in a comment on the decision, underlining that it was adopted "exclusively through dialogue."

Vucic said that it was very important to ease tension at the lower levels of air space over Kosovo because Belgrade wanted Serbian aircraft to be able to land in Pristina.

Stoltenberg said that NATO respected Serbia's military neutrality, describing the removal of the 1999 flight restrictions as a concrete expression of relations between NATO and Serbia and a result of Serbia's commitment to normalisation of its relations with Pristina.

He stressed that he supported the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, describing it as the only way to move forward.

You should be looking to the future, not the past, said the NATO official.

Stoltenberg expressed condolences to the families of people killed in NATO bombings of Serbia in 1999, saying that the intervention had not been directed against the Serbian people but that its purpose had been to put an end to unacceptable activities of the Milosevic regime.

The NATO intervention ended years of war in the Balkans. We did everything during the intervention to prevent the loss of innocent lives and every civilian life lost was a tragedy that we deeply regret, Stoltenberg said, expressing condolences to families on both sides of the conflict and all who had lost their dear ones.

He went on to say that KFOR would continue its peace mission in Kosovo.

Stoltenberg explained that after last week's terrorist attacks in Paris there had been no activation of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, under which an attack on a member of the alliance is treated as an attack on all members, noting that this was a fight against terrorism and not a conflict between the West and Muslims.

Muslims on the first line of defence against terrorism are very often the first victims, Stoltenberg said, suggesting that Muslims, too, should be supported in the fight against terrorists and that all NATO member countries should contribute to the fight against the Islamic State terrorist organisation.

PM Vucic said that the visit of the NATO Secretary-General was important and useful to Serbia.

Stressing that Serbia is a sovereign and militarily neutral country and that it will abide by its parliamentary declaration and decision on its military neutrality, Vucic said that Belgrade would continue to advance its good cooperation with NATO "even though NATO and Serbia even today needn't be in agreement on certain issues from the past."

"There is no hostility between us and Serbia does not want to make enemies of our friends even though I don't think that Serbia or its leadership was in any way responsible for what happened in 1999, but we view events from the past differently," explained Vucic.

The Serbian PM said that he and Stoltenberg also discussed the current migrant crisis and the technical assistance of NATO which will cover a significant part of the cost of training of Serbian army officers.

"We have managed to have 70-80% of the training paid for and I am sure that it will have manifold benefits for us," said Vucic.

Until the end of the day, when he will end his visit to Serbia, Stoltenberg will also meet Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic and Defence Minister Bratislav Gasic and hold a lecture at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade.

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