Assassin who sparked WWI gets statue in Belgrade

Serbian army honour guard stands behind the bronze statue of Gavrilo Princip after an unveiling ceremony at a park in downtown Belgrade on June 28, 2015 (AFP Photo/Andrej Isakovic)

Belgrade (AFP) - A statue of a Bosnian Serb nationalist whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 101 years ago sparked World War I, and who is seen here as an icon of Serb patriotism, was inaugurated here Sunday.

The two-meter (6.6-foot) high bronze statue of Gavrilo Princip was unveiled in a park in downtown Belgrade and the event was attended by several hundred people, according to an AFP photographer.

"Princip was a hero, a symbol of ideas of liberty.... Others may think what they want," said Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, who attended the event.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, whose entity gave the statue to Belgrade as a gift, was also present. The statue by a local sculptor is the same as the one unveiled in Bosnia's Serb-run Sarajevo suburb last year.

Princip, who was just 19 when he shot the archduke in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, remains a controversial figure in the Balkans, where the scars of ethnic wars in the 1990s are still fresh.

While some see him as a fervent Serb nationalist who sought to liberate Slavs from their Austro-Hungarian occupiers, others regard him as a terrorist who unleashed horrific bloodshed on the world.

He shot dead the archduke and his wife with a Browning revolver, setting off a chain of events that sucked Europe's great powers into four years of unprecedented violence that redrew the world map.

The Great War lasted more than 52 months and left some 10 million dead and 20 million injured and maimed on its battlefields. Millions more perished under occupation through disease, hunger or deportation.

Last year Sarajevo marked 100 years since the assassination, but Princip's divisive legacy meant that Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders shunned the event.

Until Bosnia's 1992-1995 war Princip was Sarajevo's favourite son.

Two years after he died in prison in 1920 his bones were dug up and brought to be buried in the city, where a bridge was named after him and plaques put up in his honour.

But during the 1992-1995 war he was worshipped as an icon of Serb nationalism by Bosnian Serb forces as they besieged Sarajevo in one of the war's most brutal episodes.