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Serbia's Defense Chief Crows About Russian Military Allies

FILE - A Serbian Army MiG-29 jet fighter prepares for flight at the military airport Batajnica near Belgrade, Serbia, Oct. 17, 2017.

Live-ammunition drills the Serbian military is holding with Russian and Belarusian troops show Belgrade has allies in any future war in the Balkans, Serbia's defense minister said Monday.

Aleksandar Vulin said the joint Slavic Brotherhood military maneuvers Serbia is hosting this month demonstrate "we are no longer alone."

"We have friends," Vulin said in a statement. "That horrible moment in our history when we were all alone will never repeat again."

Vulin was referring to the 1999 U.S.-led NATO bombing of Serbia. The bombing stopped a bloody Serb crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists and civilians, while Russia remained largely on the sidelines.

Serbia is seeking European Union membership, but has also been sliding toward Russian influence. Moscow supplies arms and warplanes for the Serbian armed forces, triggering worry among Serbia's neighbors, which are either NATO allies or are seeking to become members of the Western military alliance.

Belarus, Russia and Serbia have conducted the Slavic Brotherhood drills for several years. The ones underway in Serbia started earlier this month. Taking part are more than 200 troops from Russian elite Airborne Forces, about 300 from Serbia and 60 from Belarus, as well as some 50 combat vehicles, according the Russian Defense Ministry.

"The Serbian army is being armed and trained, that's why the drills such as the Slavic Brotherhood are so important to us," said Vulin, who is known for his staunchly pro-Russia stands.

"These drills are not only about the military practice. This is a meeting of brotherly nations, those who understand each other, those who love each other," he said.

Tensions recently have increased in the Balkans, with Serbia and Kosovo accusing each other of undermining efforts at reconciliation.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008. The former Serbian province is recognized by the U.S. and most other Western states, but not by Serbia, Russia or China.

While claiming military neutrality, Serbia has been an active member of NATO's Membership For Peace outreach program.