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Echo of shot heard around the world

- Balkan animosities mark centenary
Tourists in period costumes pose inside a replica of the Graf & Stift car at the historical street corner in downtown Sarajevo where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie exactly a hundred years ago. (AFP)

June 28: The centenary of the “shot heard around the world” has thrown the animosities and divisions of the Balkans into sharp relief as rival factions compete to mark Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.

The murder of Ferdinand by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip on the bright morning of June 28, 1914, set the Great Powers marching to war. More than 10 million soldiers died as empires crumbled.

Sarajevo closed the century under siege by Bosnian Serb forces during Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Leaders of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs, who consider the assassin a hero, boycotted the Sarajevo events today, angered by what they say is an attempt to link the wars that opened and ended the 20th century, and to pin the blame on them.

In a concert intended to highlight continental unity, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra played tonight in the hall in Sarajevo visited by the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire shortly before his murder in 1914, which precipitated the First World War.

The concert took place in the capital’s restored City Hall, known as Vijecnica, where Ferdinand attended a reception on June 28, 1914. He left in an open car with his pregnant wife, Sophie, but the driver took a wrong turn and Princip shot them from a Browning pistol on the banks of the river.

The Austrians attacked Serbia a month later and the Great Powers, already spoiling for a fight, piled in.

In 1992, the neo-Moorish Vijecnica, which later became the National Library, went up in flames under fire from Bosnian Serb forces in the hills. Almost 2 million books perished in the inferno.

The building bears a plaque condemning the “Serb criminals” who fired the shells, a reference Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said prevented him from attending today’s concert.

Instead, prominent Bosnian Serbs were scheduled to attend a re-enactment of the fateful shots and a Serb orchestral performance in the eastern city of Visegrad, itself a symbol of the country’s scarred past.

The scene of ethnic cleansing during the 1990s when several thousand Muslims were murdered, Visegrad lies in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-administered half of Bosnia.

A century after cataclysmic forces were unleashed by two shots fired on the streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia remains mired in ethnic tensions.

“I thought about going to Sarajevo,” said Vucic, the Serb Prime Minister. “I was supposed to stand beside a plaque that speaks of the ‘Serbian fascist aggressors’. Sorry, with all due respect, I cannot do that.”

In Sarajevo, Princip is regarded as a terrorist who ended decades of peaceful rule, while nationalist Serbs view him as a freedom fighter. His family home in northwest Bosnia was burnt by Croat troops in 1995 towards the end of the conflict that claimed more than 100,000 lives. It is being rebuilt as a museum by Bosnian Serbs.

Asked about the significance of a Vienna orchestra marking the event in Sarajevo, conductor Franz Welser-Most said: “You should not deny the burden of history.” The message, he said, was “never again”. Vienna was the principal capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire Ferdinand might have inherited had he survived.

THE TIMES, LONDON, AND REUTERS