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Symbolic Mostar bridge reopens

The new bridge stands as a symbol of national reconstruction
Bosnia and Herzegovina
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The city of Mostar, a symbol like Sarajevo of the bloody end of Yugoslavia, is celebrating the reopening of its rebuilt 16th century bridge that some hope can help reconcile Muslims and Croats.

Almost 11 years after Bosnian Croat artillerymen shelled it to destruction, the new "Stari Most" (Old Bridge) was inaugurated at a ceremony on Friday evening attended by dozens of delegations from around the world, including Britain's Prince Charles.

Fireworks lit up the sky while nine Mostar divers, brandishing torches, dove into the Neretva River as children sung anti-war songs.

"I think this is a new beginning, that's what citizens have been telling me too. You can feel a special atmosphere all over," Mostar's Muslim mayor Hamdija Jahic told Reuters earlier on Friday.

Mostar residents flooded the Old Town after watching the celebrations to walk across the bridge.

"This feeling is hard to describe. I spent my childhood, my youth, my whole life here. I just hope other things in Mostar will soon look more like they were before," Amela Hadrovic, a 38-year-old ethnic Muslim office worker, told Reuters after crossing over.

The 30-meter (100-foot) span has been rebuilt using original stones as well as stones taken from the quarry used by Ottoman architect Mimar Hajrudin, who built the bridge when Bosnia was under Turkish rule.

The elegant white-marble "Stari Most" had been an emblem of a crossroads between East and West, Islam and Christianity, since its completion in 1566.

But in 1993, after surviving many conflicts through the ages, shelling by Bosnian Croat forces during the devastating war sent the bridge crashing into the Neretva River.

Its destruction caused international outrage. The broken arch became a symbol of the division of Mostar between its Roman Catholic Croat inhabitants in the west and Muslims in the east.

The two communities are still deeply divided, despite intense international diplomatic efforts to reunite them.

NATO-led troops still keep the peace while an international administration overseas the country, which in 1995 was split into a Muslim-Croat federation and Bosnian Serb mini-state.

Bosnian officials now believe the bridge could mark a turning point in attempts to reconcile the Muslims and Croats, both in Mostar and the country as a whole.

"I am sure that this bridge will do more for the unification of Mostar and Bosnia -- more than the declarations or politicians together -- because it is, simply put, our history," Sulejman Kupusovic, in charge of Friday's ceremony, told The Associated Press.

"I am sure that the return of the Old Bridge will be the light at the end of the tunnel, whose darkness we experience in these cursed Balkans." Some 260,000 people were killed during the 1992-95 war.

An international tourist attraction, Mostar's bridge had been included in a U.N. list of worldwide cultural heritage sites.

The $15 million cost of reconstruction, which started in 1997, has been funded by the United States, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands and Croatia, as well as by several organizations and individuals, AP reported.

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