BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia publicly showcased a recently delivered Chinese anti-aircraft missile system on Saturday, raising concerns in the West and some of Serbia’s neighbors that an arms buildup in the Balkans could threaten a fragile peace in the region.
The sophisticated HQ-22 surface-to-air system was delivered last month by a dozen Chinese Air Force Y-20 transport planes in what was considered China’s largest arms airlift ever made to Europe.
Although Serbia is officially seeking to become a member of the European Union, it has mainly equipped itself with Russian and Chinese weapons, including T-72 battle tanks, MiG-29 fighter jets, attack helicopters Mi-35 and drones.
In 2020, US officials warned Belgrade against purchasing HQ-22 missile systems, the export version of which is known as FK-3. They said that if Serbia really wanted to join the EU and other Western alliances, it should bring its military equipment up to Western standards.
The Chinese missile system has been widely compared to the American Patriot and Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, although it has a shorter range than the more advanced S-300s. Serbia is the leading operator of Chinese missiles in Europe.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said at the end of the arms display at a military airport near Belgrade that the Chinese missiles, as well as other recently delivered military equipment, do not pose a threat to anyone and only represent a “powerful deterrent” against potential attackers.
“We will no longer allow to be a punching bag for anyone,” Vucic said, apparently referring to NATO’s 78-day bombardment of Serbia for its bloody crackdown on Kosovo Albanian separatists in 1999 .
Serbia, which was at war with its neighbors in the 1990s, does not recognize the independence of Kosovo proclaimed in 2008. It still maintains icy relations with Croatia and Montenegro, members of NATO, as well as with Bosnia, whose Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik attended the military exercise. the Saturday.
Vucic said that Serbia is also negotiating the purchase of French Dessault Rafale multipurpose aircraft, as well as British Eurofighter Typhoon fighters. He said only “political obstacles” could prevent the purchase of the Western aircraft.
Many people fear that Russia is pushing its ally Serbia into armed conflict with its neighbors in an attempt, at least in part, to divert public attention from the war in Ukraine.
Although Serbia has voted in favor of UN resolutions that condemn the bloody Russian attacks in Ukraine, it has refused to join in international sanctions against its allies in Moscow or outrightly criticize the apparent atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.
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