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UNITED NATIONS, Jan 17 (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon apologized on Thursday for the performance of a Serbian military song in the world body's General Assembly, which activists said was associated with massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s.
But U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic, a Serbian, defended the performance of Mars na Drinu (March on the River Drina) at a New Year's concert organized by his office at U.N. headquarters in New York on Monday.
The Congress of North American Bosniaks, The Institute for Research of Genocide Canada, the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Center complained about the song in a letter to Ban.
"The genocide that occurred in Srebrenica and Zepa, and other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was conducted by Serbian aggressors while blasting this song as they raped, murdered, and ethnically cleansed the non-Serb population," they wrote.
Ban spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Thursday the song had been played as an encore at the concert and had not been listed in the official program.
"We sincerely regret that people were offended by this song," Nesirky told reporters. "The Secretary-General obviously was not aware what the song was about or the use that has been made of it in the past."
Ban visited Srebrenica in July. The United Nations had designated the enclave in eastern Bosnia a "safe haven" for Muslim refugees, but peacekeepers stood by helplessly as Bosnian Serb forces killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995.
Jeremic's office said in a statement that the controversy was a "highly regrettable attempt at twisting the meaning of our musical gift offered to the world this week, and deeply offensive one for the Serbian people."
It said the song was associated with the bravery of Serbian soldiers who fought in World War One.
"In Europe, there is a tradition of finishing New Year's concerts with popular marches, transformed into a message of peace. It is the case with Radetsky March at the end of Vienna concerts, and so was it in New York with the Mars na Drinu," the statement said. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Doina Chiacu)