Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslims was not genocide but "grave war crimes" in comments Bosnia immediately said would cause "new tension."
"There was no genocide in Srebrenica," Nikolic said in an interview with Montenegrin state television published on its website Friday, in statements that harked back to his days as an ultra-nationalist leader during the 1990s wars which tore apart the former Yugoslavia.
"In Srebrenica, grave war crimes were committed by some Serbs, who should be found, prosecuted and punished," he added in the interview taped earlier this week.
Some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered in a matter of days after Bosnian Serb troops overran the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica in Bosnia in July 1995.
The Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, immediately slammed the genocide denial.
"Denying the Srebrenica genocide .... is not a step on the road to cooperation and restoring confidence but exactly the opposite -- it is a source of new misunderstandings and tension" in the region, Izetbegovic said in a statement.
"It casts serious doubts over his pro-European stance and his commitment to good relations in the region," added Nikolic, who surprisingly beat pro-European incumbent Boris Tadic in a run-off presidential vote on May 20.
After breaking with the anti-Western, ultra-nationalist Radical Party in 2008, Nikolic strove to present himself as a moderate populist nationalist and embraced Serbia's attempts to join the European Union.
Serbia has been slowly trying to rebuild ties with its former foes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo but the process of reconciliation is slow going.
In 2010 the Serbian parliament passed an historic declaration condemning the Srebrenica massacre and apologising to the victims and their families, but as the leader of the opposition SNS party Nikolic did not support the move.
Hatidza Mehmedovic, who belongs to the victims' organisation Mothers of Srebrenica and lost her husband and two sons in the massacre, said Nikolic's comments were "worrying" but honest.
"It's even honest what Nikolic is saying ... the majority of people there (in Serbia) think the same thing," she told AFP.
"It is unfortunate that people who make such comments are cosying up to Europe," she added.
Another victim Kada Hotic said the election of Nikolic was "a disaster not only for Serbia but for the Balkans".
The Srebrenica massacre, the worst single atrocity on European soil since World War II, was ruled to have constituted a genocide by two international courts: the UN Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the UN's highest court, the International Court of Justice.
Six other top officers of the Bosnian Serb army have been convicted on genocide charges by the ICTY over Srebrenica including former general Radislav Krstic, who was jailed for 35 years for leading the attack on the enclave.
Nikolic also blasted the Montenegrin journalist for asking if he would go to Srebrenica, where a yearly commemoration is held July 11.
"My predecessor was there and paid tribute... why should every president do the same?" he said.
Tadic apologised to Srebrenica victims when he attended the 2005 commemoration of the massacre, the bloodiest episode in the 1992-95 Bosnian war. He was also present at the ceremony in 2010.
Source: AFP Global Edition