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Oct 12, 8:59 AM EDT

Serb minister reaffirms support for convicted war criminal

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) -- Serbia's defense minister on Thursday reaffirmed his support for a convicted war criminal, denouncing the U.S. ambassador to Belgrade for his critical tweet.

Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin has praised former Gen. Vladimir Lazarevic, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison by a U.N. war crimes tribunal for atrocities committed by Serb troops in Kosovo during the 1999 crackdown against ethnic Albanians. The crackdown stopped only after a 78-day NATO bombardment.

In response to Vulin's public praise of Lazarevic, U.S. Ambassador Kyle Scott tweeted that months of work to improve Serbia's image in the United States can be "undermined with a single statement."

Vulin said Thursday, "Gen. Lazarevic is an honorable and brave man and there is no army (in the world) that would give him up."

"The truth is that I am proud of my people's fight (against NATO) and the truth is that I am proud of Lazarevic and all the people who defended this country," he added.

"Am I supposed to praise the (NATO) bombing and seek justification for Kosovo's secession?" Vulin asked.

Lazarevic, the commander of Serb troops during the Kosovo war that left more than 10,000 people dead and nearly a million homeless, was released from prison in 2015 after serving two-thirds of his sentence.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic joined Vulin in his criticism of Scott.

"The ambassador of the United States, just like the other ambassadors, should not get involved into our internal affairs," Dacic said. "Vladimir Lazarevic and the others who have served their sentences are (free) citizens like any other."

The remarks by the Serbian officials illustrate Serbia's increasing defiance of the West. Serbia is formally seeking European Union membership but at the same time is edging closer to longtime Slavic ally Russia.

Moscow has backed Belgrade's bid to maintain its claim over Kosovo - a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008 with the support of Washington and its allies. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's statehood.

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