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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Milosevic's Words Haunt Serb Shrine

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- On June 28, 1989, Slobodan Milosevic addressed a million people at a historic battlefield in Kosovo and promised to preserve the Serbian nation.

Ten years later, the man who once dreamed of carving a mini-empire for all Serbs has stained the nation in blood in repeated wars, has lost Serb lands in Croatia and Bosnia and turned what is left of Yugoslavia into a pariah state.

The Serb Orthodox Church commemorated the ancient defeat Monday, but took the opportunity to further criticize Milosevic's regime.

A Mass was celebrated to observe Vidovdan, or St. Vitus Day, the 610th anniversary of the epic battle against Ottoman Turks at Kosovo Polje near Pristina. In nearby Gracanica, a historic monastery, Patriarch Pavle held an incense-scented Mass, reclaiming for his church the emotional anniversary he says had been hijacked by politicians.

The Serb defeat in the 1389, followed by 500 years of Turkish domination, has taken on mythological symbolism over the centuries as the foundation of Serbian nationhood.

"This Vidovdan differs from the previous ones," Pavle was quoted Sunday as saying. "There will be no hypocrisy in it, [and] in its celebration the godless leaders of our people will take no part."

That was an apparent reference to Milosevic, whom the church earlier this month urged to resign "in the interest of the people and their salvation."

Kosovo, where Milosevic first ignited the flame of Serbian nationalism in 1987, is now being emptied of Serbs. The UN refugee agency said Monday that nearly half the Serbs in Kosovo had fled the province over the past three weeks.

In 1989, then-Serbian President Milosevic evoked memories of Prince Lazar, a legendary hero who chose to fight to death rather than betray his nation to foreign oppressors.

Milosevic told the masses gathered at Kosovo Polje, the "Field of Blackbirds" battlefield, to make the same choice as Lazar, saying Serbia was still "in battles and quarrels," noting that armed battle should not be excluded.

Three months before the speech, Milosevic had stripped Kosovo of its broad autonomy and pleased the Serb minority in the province by implementing direct Belgrade rule over Kosovo imposed by a strict police presence.

But a decade later, the Serbian nation has been bloodstained by repeated wars and all Yugoslav troops and Serbian police have pulled out of Kosovo to be replaced by international peacekeepers f something Milosevic had vowed would never happen.

The Serbian pullout sparked an exodus of more than 71,000 Serbs f nearly half the population of Kosovo Serbs f who feared reprisals from returning ethnic Albanian refugees.

Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije Radosavljevic said Monday that Albanians had suffered a "pogrom" at Serbian hands, but said guilty Serbs had fled, and the innocent should not be the victims.

"We cannot allow uncontrolled and enraged crowds to exact justice," he said at a news conference. "That would only be a new crime and this time under the eyes of the international community f that would be unthinkable."

He released a letter delivered to Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN official charged with creating peaceful, democratic means for the people of Kosovo to resolve their differences. De Mello is backed by the NATO-led peacekeepers, who Serbs say have not done enough to protect them from Albanian reprisals.

De Mello could not be reached for comment Monday, but he and NATO officials have stressed in the past that they will work to protect both Serbs and Albanians. The peacekeepers have been in Kosovo just over two weeks.

NATO's Kosovo commander, British Lieutenant General Mike Jackson, said he hopes the arrival of Russian peacekeepers will make Serbs feel safer, but reports of more revenge attacks did little to boost their confidence.

The Russians, traditional allies of the Serbs, are preparing to send 3,600 peacekeepers to join a NATO force that eventually will include 55,000.

The Kosovo Serbs added to hundreds of thousands of Serbs who are refugees in their own land. More than 500,000 ethnic Serbs are now living in Serbia after fleeing the wars that gave Bosnia and Croatia independence.

Before that, Slovenia won a war of independence from Yugoslavia and then Macedonia slipped out of the federation without any bloodshed.

Now, Milosevic is left as president of a federation made up only of Serbia and Montenegro f and the latter republic is run by a pro-Western leader threatening a referendum on independence.

Despite the public pressure, however, the man who served two terms as Serbia's president before becoming the Yugoslav leader is showing no sign of voluntarily relaxing his grip on power.