Serbian pilots are “dive bombing” Libyan protesters and Serbian mercenaries are being paid tens of thousands of dollars to fight for Gaddafi. You have to have to pity the poor Serbs here. In the modern world, the equivalent of malicious bike-shed gossip can go global within hours. On the other hand, with more than 66,000 people backing a Serbian support group for Gaddafi on Facebook it is hardly surprising that Libyans opposed to the regime might think that Serbs would be ready to bomb them.
Serbia and Libya have deep links, which go back to the era of the Non-Aligned Movement. Libyan officers trained in the old Yugoslavia, the Galeb plane destroyed by the French on 24 March was made in Bosnia, and Serbia had this year been on the brink of selling, building and equipping a major military hospital in Libya worth several hundred million dollars.
Having been bombed by Nato many Serbs probably do sympathise with Gaddafi. Surprisingly perhaps for the leader of a Muslim country, Gaddafi staunchly supported Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader, and has refused to recognise overwhelmingly Muslim Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
The Facebook support page is full of comments about supporting “our friends”. It was set up by a small ultra nationalist Serbian group called Nasi 1389, whose name recalls the date when Serb forces were defeated by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Kosovo.
The internet rumours though, are just rumours. Scour the web and you can find an early reference to the Serbian pilots in a text message, allegedly from someone in Libya, published in an Indian newspaper and on a Maltese blog. The story grew to such proportions that Dragan Sutanovac, the Serbian minister of defence, had to denounce it as “total stupidity”. The story of Serbian mercenaries comes from a newspaper called Alo, which means Hello. It is possible that there are a few Serbs, Croats or Bosnians fighting for cash but just as no one would quote Britain’s Hello! magazine as a reliable source for stories on international affairs, it is safe to discount the reliability of this story too.
But, says Daniel Sunter, editor of Balkan Intelligence newsletter, what has happened in Libya is “bad news” for Serbia’s now resurgent military industry and hence its economy. Beyond that though, since the government desperately wants to become a candidate for EU membership in December, it will “do nothing which will put that in danger”.