Serbia’s parliament has passed a landmark resolution condemning the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.

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The adoption of the text by a majority of 127 of the 173 politicians present ends years of denial by Serbian MPs about the scale of the killings.

“The parliament of Serbia strongly condemns the crime committed against the Bosnian Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995, as determined by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling,” the text says.

The statement is the first time Serbia’s lawmakers have formally condemned the killings, and acknowledged a failure to prevent the Srebrenica deaths, which occurred when Bosnian Serb troops overran a UN protected enclave in eastern Bosnia.

The lawmakers also formally extended “their condolences and an apology to the families of the victims because not everything possible was done to prevent the tragedy.”

Declaration ‘just the beginning’

The ruling coalition which proposed the resolution hailed its adoption after 13 hours of often heated debate but warned this was only the beginning of the process for Serbia of coming to terms with its recent history.

“This declaration is only a beginning because the issues it treats are only the tip of the iceberg of the past we have to face,” ruling coalition member Nenad Canak said after the vote.

Earlier, Nada Kolundzija, head of the ruling coalition’s parliamentary group, had called on politicians to “provide peace and respect to those killed, to provide peace and condolences to those who survived”.

“What we should do today is to say Serbia does not back those who have committed this crime,” she said, as members of parliament debated the controversial resolution.

The parliament also vowed to continue its cooperation with the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and stressed the importance of “the discovery and arrest of Ratko Mladic so that he might stand trial before the ICTY”.

Mladic, the UN war crimes court’s most wanted fugitive, was in charge of the Bosnian Serb troops who carried out the killings. He is believed to be hiding in Serbia.

The timing of the historical declaration coincides with Serbia’s push to join the European Union with Belgrade hoping to achieve candidate status next year.

Victims buried in mass graves

The EU has made full cooperation with the ICTY a prerequisite for being allowed to join the bloc and has hammered on the importance of reconciliation in the region.

The Srebrenica massacre is the only episode in Bosnia’s bloody 1992-95 war to have been ruled as genocide by the ICTY and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In their ruling, ICJ judges cleared Serbia of responsibility for the actual killings themselves but said Belgrade was responsible for doing nothing to prevent the bloodshed.

After separating men from women, Bosnian Serb troops led by general Ratko Mladic summarily executed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys and buried the bodies in various mass graves.

Fifteen years after the killings, the remains of thousands of massacre victims have been exhumed from more than 70 graves around the town of Srebrenica, with more than 5,600 victims identified by DNA analysis.

But for many years Serbia downplayed the scale of the killings and many here still consider Mladic a war hero who fought for Serb interests.

Although Serbian President Boris Tadic attended the 10-year-anniversary of the massacre in 2005 and apologized to survivors there, he was widely condemned for doing so at home.