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China’s Xi begins Serbia visit on 25th anniversary of NATO bombing of Chinese embassy

Belgrade, Serbia — BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to European ally Serbia on Tuesday falls on a symbolic date: the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during NATO’s air war over Kosovo.

On May 7, 1999, U.S. jets dropped five bombs on the Chinese embassy compound in the Serbian capital, setting it on fire and killing three Chinese citizens. Twenty other people were injured in the incident, which has since strained relations between the two powers.

The Western military alliance launched the air war in March of the same year to force then-Serb ruler Slobodan Milosevic to end a brutal attack against Albanian rebels in Kosovo.

The US apologized at the time and said the embassy bombing was a mistake based on faulty intelligence. The intended target, Washington said, was the headquarters of a Serbian state arms exporter located on the same street a few blocks away.

“Imagine if someone attacked an American embassy anywhere in the world, even accidentally. The reaction would be immediate,” said Sven Biscop, professor of European foreign and security policy at Ghent University and the Egmont Institute.

“So for a country like China“It’s also clear that this is a big deal,” he added. “And of course it hasn’t been forgotten.”

Angry protesters in China stormed U.S. diplomatic facilities as the bombing stoked anti-American sentiment and speculation that the attack was deliberate rather than accidental. Mistrust over the incident continues to this day.

“We will probably never really know conclusively in either case,” Biscop said. “But one thing is certain: in war, such incidents do happen, and I usually tend to use the simplest explanation rather than trying to invent complicated theories.” ”

While the embassy bombing strained Beijing’s relations with the United States, it also brought China and Serbia closer together. China has become Serbia’s largest provider of foreign direct investment and its second largest trading partner after the European Union.

Beijing opposed NATO bombing and has since supported Belgrade’s attempt to counter Western-backed independence efforts in Kosovo, a former Serbian province. In return, Serbia has been a staunch ally of Beijing and has freely opened its doors to billions of dollars in Chinese investment, even though the country officially seeks EU membership.

Signs of pro-China sentiment were clearly visible ahead of Xi’s visit on Tuesday and Wednesday. In Belgrade, a huge Chinese flag was installed on a skyscraper on a road leading from the airport into the city. Smaller Chinese and Serbian flags could be seen downtown and along a highway.

Xi will travel from France and travel from Serbia to Hungary as part of his first European tour in five years.

He is expected to visit the former embassy site on the anniversary and pay his respects to the victims of the bombing. The site where the embassy once stood is now a Chinese cultural center.

The sprawling complex reportedly includes a Confucius Institute, workshops, exhibitions, offices, living quarters and a hotel. It is considered a symbol of China’s growing influence in Serbia and throughout Europe.

Near the institute last weekend, a group of visitors from China bowed before a simple black marble monument and laid flowers in honor of the victims of the 1999 bombing. An inscription on the monument in Chinese and English reads: “Honor the martyrs, cherish the peace.”

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Sylvain Plazy contributed to this report from Brussels.

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