Thursday, May 21, 2009
U.S. (Biden) gets cheers in Kosova after Serbia embarrasses herself
By Adam Tanner
Thursday, May 21, 2009 9:56 AM
PRISTINA (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden received a tumultuous welcome in Kosovo on Thursday just hours after leaving Serbia where thousands of police kept streets empty to avoid anti-American protests.
The contrasting welcomes on a three-day tour of the Balkans highlighted both warm Kosovar feelings for the United States which has supported its independence, and the still uneasy relations between Serbia and Washington.
"Welcome and Thank You," said posters across Pristina, showing pictures of Biden, a former U.S. senator known for his support of Kosovo independence from Serbia.
Thousands of schoolchildren lined his route into town, holding up American and Kosovo flags. They cheered wildly as his black limousine passed, and some chanted: "USA, USA."
"The United States and God saved us in 1999. Biden is our man and I came here to see him," said Shukri Morina, who traveled 30 kilometers (19 miles) to Pristina.
In Serbia, police cleared the streets of people who still bitterly remember the NATO 1999 bombing of Belgrade, and some offices were told to keep their windows shut with the curtains drawn. Hundreds of police lined Biden's route to the airport and even the tarmac itself.
Kosovo, where more than 90 percent of its two million people are ethnic Albanians, declared independence last year, but Serbia is suing in an international court, claiming it had no right to do so.
International troops still patrol, including about 1,400 from the United States. Over the past decade the international community has given billions of dollars in aid to landlocked Kosovo, the Balkans' smallest geographic country.
"I think the government has made considerable progress in the first year, it's remarkable," Biden said in a meeting with Kosovo's prime minister and president. "The United States has made it clear that the recognition of Kosovo is irreversible."
Unemployment is still very high and crime and corruption remain serious. With several European Union countries refusing to recognize Kosovo, it is the only Balkan country without any EU prospects at present.
"We have given our commitments to continue good governance, transparency, rule of law and fight corruption," said Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. Biden's visit "is a reconfirmation of powerful support from the U.S. for the progress that we have achieved in Kosovo."
To highlight American support for the rights of the ethnic Serb minority, Biden plans to visit the 14th century Decani monastery, one of the jewels of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
But Orthodox Church leaders in Kosovo with jurisdiction over Decani criticized the plans.
"The U.S. vice president is visiting Kosovo as an independent state, to confirm the forceful secession of Serbia's territory and its handover to Albanian terrorists who were not punished for numerous crimes against Serbian people, Serbian property and Serbian cultural and religious heritage," they said in a press statement.
"Does Joseph Biden want to confirm with his gesture that Decani is an American base in Kosovo, the same as camp Bondsteel?" the statement asked, referring to a military base Biden was also to visit on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina and Branislav Krstic in Decani; Editing by Myra MacDonald)
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