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Serbia defies Russia to hold military drills with American forces

American and Serbian paratroopers have held joint exercises in Serbia, watched with unease by Russia which is trying to increase its influence in the Balkans.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic attended the last day of the four-day drills that included joint jumps by Serbian and US troops from two US Air Force C-130J Hercules transport planes close to the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

Mr Vucic said: "The joint exercise contributes to the (military) skills, but also enhances partnership and friendship that was not always seen in the past."

American and Nato-related military activities in the Balkans regularly trigger anger from the Kremlin, which opposes the Western military alliance's expansion in the former communist eastern Europe.

Serbia, which tries to balance politically between Russia and the West, claims military neutrality.

Mr Vucic said: "I'm grateful to our American partners who have showed that in a short time we could organise these activities."

In 1999, a 78-day US-led Nato bombardment ended a Serbian crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists in its former province of Kosovo, making the Western military alliance unpopular among Serbs.

John Gronski, the US Army Europe deputy commanding general, said after the drills that exercises with Serbian forces "build the readiness of both of our militaries and when you have ready military, a region can be more stable and secure".

Moscow has been arming the country with fighter jets and other equipment, worrying neighbouring states that saw a bloody civil war in the 1990s.

But Nato and Serbia have been improving co-operation since the country joined its outreach Partnership for Peace programme in 2006.

"I believe that we will improve (our relations) in the future," Mr Vucic said, adding: "Serbia will, understandably, jealously preserve its military neutrality."

AP

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