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Hero’s welcome for Biden in Kosovo

Pristina — Vice President Joe Biden received a hero’s welcome Thursday as the most senior US official yet to visit Kosovo since its disputed declaration of independence from Serbia last year.

"Kosovo’s independence was the only viable option for stability in the region," Biden told a special sitting of the Kosovo parliament in Pristina.

"Your independence is irreversible," he said in a speech lawmakers greeted with several standing ovations. "The success of an independent Kosovo is a priority for our administration."

Cheered on by a huge crowd, Biden’s motorcade had made its way towards the parliament along streets lined by billboards declaring: "Welcome and thank you."

The US vice president is credited with having been one of Washington’s strongest advocates of the independence of ethnic Albanian-majority Kosovo, which declared its secession from Serbia in February last year.

Coming after trips to Bosnia and Serbia, Biden’s visit to Kosovo is his final stop on a tour to demonstrate fresh US engagement in Europe and the volatile Balkan region.

In a brief ceremony, Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu awarded the US vice president with "The Golden Medal of Freedom," the highest decoration in the Balkan territory.

"Thank you… for honouring me with this medal… I don’t deserve it, but I received it on behalf of the United States," Biden told reporters.

Biden was most outspoken in favour of Kosovo’s independence when he served as a senator in the late 1990s.

"Mr. Biden is one of the few politicians in the world that has long believed in the independence of Kosovo. For his contribution to changing our destiny, Biden is our man," the Express daily said Thursday in a commentary.

Kosovo split from Serbia on February 17, 2008. Its independence was promptly recognised by the United States and most European Union countries, but rejected by Serbia and its ally Russia as illegal.

Sixty countries now recognise Kosovo’s statehood.

Following his speech to parliament, Biden was flown by helicopter to the Visoki Decani monastery, a 14th-century UNESCO-listed heritage site in an enclave of southwestern Kosovo.

He praised the actions of the monastery’s Serbian Orthodox archdeacon who allowed ethnic Albanian refugees to shelter there during Kosovo’s 1998-1999 conflict.

"Father (Sava) and his brothers allowed refugees in the church. It is a spirit that I hope in coming decades will become characteristic of all this area," Biden told reporters.

Separately, some 1,000 minority Serbs staged a protest against the US leader’s visit in the divided, flashpoint northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica.

"We wish to draw attention to the fact that America is not our friend and we cannot expect anything good" from Biden’s visit, said Radovan Nicic, a Serb leader.

Serbs, who account for little more than 100,000 of Kosovo’s population of around two million, consider the territory their country’s medieval heartland.

In Belgrade, Biden offered Serbia’s pro-Western government a clean slate in relations tarnished by the Kosovo dispute, saying Washington did not expect Serbia to recognise its breakaway southern province.

"The United States does not, I emphasise, does not expect Serbia to recognise the independence of Kosovo," Biden told a joint media conference with Serbian President Boris Tadic.

US warplanes took part in NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia to end a violent crackdown on separatist Kosovo Albanian rebels by forces loyal to late president Slobodan Milosevic.

Biden will spend the night in Kosovo’s southeast at Camp Bondsteel, one of the largest US military bases outside of the United States, before he is travelling on to Lebanon.