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U.S. Vice President Makes 'Historic' Visit To Kosovo

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden received a rapturous welcome in Pristina.
(RFE/RL) -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Kosovo, the final stop of his three-day Balkan tour. He is the first senior U.S. official to visit Kosovo since it declared independence from Serbia last year, and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has described the visit as "historic."

Thaci promised Biden a "magnificent" welcome to Kosovo, in thanks for U.S. support -- and Biden's personal backing -- for Kosovo's independence from Serbia.

Thousands of schoolchildren lined the route of Biden's motorcade into Pristina, waving U.S. and Kosovar flags and cheering. Street billboards carried pictures of Biden, with the words "welcome and thank you." Dancers in traditional Albanian costume greeted Biden at the parliament building.

The office of Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu said the president will present a medal to Biden. Local media say it is the gold Medal of Freedom, in recognition of his long-standing support for Kosovo.

Biden will confer with Thaci and other Kosovar leaders, and address the legislative assembly.

In earlier comments, Biden described Kosovar independence as "irreversible" and critically important to the Balkan region's stability and progress.

Agreeing To Disagree

In Belgrade, however, the atmosphere that met Biden the day before was very different, with a heavy police presence keeping the streets empty in case of nationalist protests.

And U.S. policy on Kosovo received a firm "thumbs down" from Serbian President Boris Tadic.

"Serbia does not and will never recognize Kosovo," Tadic said at a press conference with Biden after their talks. "It is Serbia's legitimate right to defend its territorial integrity through the use of peaceful, diplomatic, and legal means."

At the same time, Tadic did not want to shut the door on improved relations with the United States, which could help ease Serbia's economic difficulties, and its persistent state of semi-isolation.

"Notwithstanding our different positions on the Kosovo question, Serbia wishes for the best possible relations with the United States as partners," Tadic said.

He said he and Biden had agreed that now there is an opportunity to establish what he called a completely new level of communication between the two countries. Much can be achieved by dialogue rooted in mutual respect, he said.

In his own comments, Biden emphasized Washington's view that the Balkan region cannot be a success without Serbia playing a leading role. To this end, the United States wants closer ties with Serbia.

"The United States wants to, would like to deepen our cooperation with Serbia to help solve the problems of the region, to help Serbia become a strong, successful democratic member of the Euro-Atlantic community," Biden said. "That's our objective."

Biden also said that improved relations do not depend on Belgrade recognizing Kosovo's independence. He said however that the United States does expect Serbia to cooperate with the European Union in seeking what he called pragmatic solutions for Kosovo that will improve the lives alike of ethnic Albanians and the Serbian minority there.

He said the United States will continue to press for Kosovo's Serbs to have the strongest possible guarantees of their safety and their access to the political system.

With material from news agency reports