SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — A crowd of furious Bosnian Muslims jumped over fences and attacked Serbia’s prime minister with stones and water bottles on Saturday, marring the 20th anniversary commemorations of the Srebrenica massacre.
Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist during the Balkan wars but who is now a moderate with a pro-Western stance, escaped serious injury. He said he was hit in the face with a rock as the crowds chanted “Kill, Kill” and “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for “God is great.”
The scenes overshadowed what was supposed to be a day of reflection and remembrance for the 8,000 Muslim men and boys slaughtered at the hands of Serb forces in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica. Two U.N. courts ruled that the killings constituted genocide.
Vucic is among the most hated individuals for Bosnian Muslims, with some viewing him in worse terms than late strongman Slobodan Milosevic. During the 1992-95 Bosnian war, Vucic was an ultranationalist politician in opposition to Milosevic, criticizing the Serb leader of leniency toward Bosnian Muslims.
Many Bosnian Muslims also still remember Vucic’s incendiary statement during the Balkan wars that for every dead Serb, 100 Muslims should be killed. Some in the crowd held a banner with the quote to remind him of his past.
Vucic’s security detail rushed him away, trying to protect him with bags, umbrellas and their raised arms from the projectiles raining down. His guards shoved through the angry crowd before pushing the prime minister inside an armored vehicle.
“We were attacked from all sides. It was well organized and prepared,” a visibly shaken Vucic said upon his quick return to Serbia. He blamed hooligan soccer groups from Serbia and Bosnia for initiating the attack.
“I heard Muslim people telling the attackers ‘why are you attacking him? It is not his fault. He had not done anything here.'”
He added: “Except for my glasses, I’m missing nothing else.”
Vucic, who came to represent Serbia at the commemoration in an apparent gesture of reconciliation, said after the attack that, “Today we are talking more about a bunch of fools rather than about the innocent victims of Srebrenica.” He added that his “arms of reconciliation remain stretched toward the Bosniaks.”
Serbia’s foreign ministry sent a protest note to Bosnia, saying the attack was a murder attempt against Vucic and urged that the culprits be caught.
Although the crowd booed Vucic’s arrival, Srebrenica widows and mothers welcomed his presence.
“Only on truth we can build a future. You cannot deny the truth,” Kada Hotic, who lost her son and husband in the massacre, told Vucic before the ceremony.
The Muslim Bosniak mayor of Srebrenica, Camil Durakovic, apologized to Vucic, saying he was “deeply disappointed” about the attack.
Tens of thousands of people came to the commemorations marking two decades since Europe’s worst massacre since the Holocaust.
Foreign dignitaries urged the international community not to allow such atrocities to happen again and to call the crime “genocide.”
Serbia and Bosnian Serbs deny the killings were genocide, and claim that the death toll has been exaggerated.
Dozens of foreign dignitaries — including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Britain’s Princess Anne and Jordan’s Queen Noor.
“I grieve that it took us so long to unify … to stop this violence,” said Clinton, who was in office at the time of the massacre and whose administration led the NATO airstrikes against Serb positions. This ended the Bosnian war and the U.S. brokered a peace agreement.
Clinton said before the attack on Vucic: “I want to thank the prime minister of Serbia for having the courage to come here today and I think it is important that we acknowledge that.”
U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who witnessed the attack, condemned the “deplorable acts of violence” against Vucic. He said it was “far removed from the spirit I felt at this dignified and solemn commemoration.”
It wasn’t the first time that top Serbian officials visited Srebrenica for commemorations. The former pro-democratic president, Boris Tadic, was there twice, including on the 10th anniversary of the massacre, and there were no major incidents.
During the war, the United Nations declared Srebrenica a safe haven for civilians. But on July 11, 1995, Serb troops overran the Muslim enclave. Some 15,000 men tried to flee through the woods toward government-held territory while others joined the town’s women and children in seeking refuge at the base of the Dutch U.N. troops.
The outnumbered Dutch troops could only watch as Serb soldiers rounded up about 2,000 men for killing and later hunted down and killed another 6,000 men in the woods.
The United Nations admitted its failure to protect the town’s people and on Saturday, Bert Koenders, foreign minister of Netherland said that “the Dutch government shares responsibility” and that the U.N. must strengthen United Nations missions in the future.
“Nobody can undo what happened here but we mourn with you,” Koenders added.
The 1992-95 war in Bosnia, pitting Christian Orthodox Serbs against Bosnian Muslims and Croatian Catholics, left more than 100,000 people dead and millions homeless. The Serbs, who wanted to remain in the Serb-led Yugoslavia, fought against the secession of Bosnia and Croatia from the former federation.
So far, remains of some 7,000 victims have been excavated from 93 graves or collected from 314 surface locations and identified through DNA technology.
At the end of the ceremony Saturday, families laid the incomplete remains of 136 victims recently found in mass graves, including 19 teenagers.
“Most of the boys I played with are in these graves or in yet undiscovered mass graves,” the mayor, Durakovic, said. “With them lies my own childhood.”
AP writers Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.