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Serbia gives isolated Putin a hero's welcome

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(BELGRADE) - Serbia laid out the red carpet Thursday for Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a visit to shore up ties with its loyal European ally as Moscow faces increasing international isolation.

Thousands of people lined the streets to greet the Kremlin strongman as he attended a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of Belgrade's liberation from Nazi occupation.

The event -- the first military parade in Belgrade in 30 years -- was brought forward by four days to coincide with Putin's visit.

Shortly before his arrival, Putin accused his US counterpart Barack Obama of a hostile approach towards Russia, warning in a Cold War-style tirade that Moscow would not be blackmailed by the West over the conflict in Ukraine.

"Russia, just as it was in the past, will always see Serbia as our closest ally," Putin said after a meeting Serbian counterpart Tomislav Nikolic, seeking to cement Russia's influence in its Balkan ally.

"Next May we will together celebrate the 70th anniversary of the great victory," the end of World War II, he told the crowds chanting his name at the parade.

"It is our joint obligation to remember lessons from World War II and to stand against attempts to glorify Nazis and their allies, to unite efforts in creating an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding on the European continent," he said.

Putin has warned of rising "neo-Nazism" in the Baltics and Ukraine, where the six-month conflict has led to the worst rift in East-West ties since the Cold War.

Despite heavy rain, more than 3,000 soldiers joined the Belgrade parade, which also featured a Russian aerobatics display but was pointedly not attended by any US officials.

The visit was also used as an opportunity for Serbia to once again make clear its role as a loyal friend of Russia.

Despite seeking membership of the EU, Serbia has refused to align with the bloc's increasingly punishing sanctions against Moscow over the Ukraine crisis.

- Improving economic ties -

"Serbia will not impose sanctions against the Russian Federation. This government is not going to do so," Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic reiterated after meeting Putin.

The EU, which began accession talks with Serbia in January, had bluntly told Belgrade it should prove its credentials as a future member during the Putin visit.

Since the Ukraine crisis erupted, Serbia has been trying to balance its obligations towards the EU and maintaining good ties with Moscow.

Russia has backed Serbia's opposition to Kosovo's independence and Putin assured Serbian officials that there would be no change in Moscow's position.

The two sides discussed ways of improving economic cooperation, particularly in agriculture, as Putin said it was "right moment for Serbia to take place on the Russian market" in the face of EU sanctions.

Moscow and Belgrade already have a free-trade agreement, and Russia is Serbia's third largest foreign trade partner with two-way business in 2013 at almost $3 billion.

Earlier, Putin and Nikolic laid wreaths at a cemetery where Russian soldiers killed in the October 1944 battle for Belgrade liberation are buried.

Later on Thursday Putin was to take centre stage at an Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit that opens in Milan, where he is to hold talks with Ukraine counterpart Petro Poroshenko and European leaders on Friday.

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