Serbia’s nationalist President Tomislav Nikolic has personally apologised for the first time for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslims, but stopped short of calling it genocide.
“I kneel and ask for forgiveness for Serbia for the crime committed in Srebrenica,” Nikolic said on Thursday in an interview to be aired on Bosnian national television parts of which have been released on You Tube.
“I apologise for the crimes committed by any individual in the name of our state and our people,” he said in the interview.
Nikolic’s office confirmed to AFP news agency the authenticity of the statement.
Al Jazeera’s Aljosa Milenkovic, reporting from Belgrade, said: “May be it is sounding like a small political earthquake here in Balkans as President Nikolic is apologising for crimes committed by the Serbs during the 1990s violent breakup of Yugoslavia.”
“But when one reads more into the interview he still did not recognise what happened at Srebrenica as genocide.”
Thousands of Bosnians, mostly Muslims, were killed by Serb soldiers during the Balkan War between 1992 and 1996.
After being elected last May, Nikolic caused a stir in the region by refusing to acknowledge that the massacre in the Bosnian enclave, was a genocide, despite it being ruled as such by two international courts.
Nikolic at the time said “there was no genocide in Srebrenica”.
Emir Suljagic, a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre, told Al Jazeera that Nikolic and the government are “duplicitous”.
“Mind you, we’re dealing with a hard-line nationalist which let Kosovo go,” he added saying that the president’s apology was “one in a litany of presidential apologies in the Balkans”.
War crimes trial
Until five years ago Nikolic was a top official of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, which has denied that Serb forces committed crimes during the Balkans wars.
Its leader Vojislav Seselj is currently on trial for war crimes before The Hague-based UN International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
While this marks Nikolic’s first apology on Srebrenica, Serbia has in the past expressed regret over the deaths.
In 2010, the Serbian parliament passed an historic declaration condemning the Srebrenica massacre in a gesture ending years of denial by Serbian politicians about the scale of the killings, but Nikolic at the time did not support the move.
Nikolic’s predecessor Boris Tadic also apologised to Srebrenica victims during a commemoration event in 2005.
Both the ICTY and the United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice, have found that the Srebrenica massacre was a genocide.
Bosnian Serb wartime political and military leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are currently on trial on genocide charges before the ICTY for their role in the massacre.