Clinton urges Kosovo to start talks with Serbia

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010

PRISTINA, KOSOVO - A decade after a U.S. military intervention to rescue Kosovo, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited this fledgling nation Wednesday and prodded it to begin talks with its wartime enemy, Serbia.

Clinton was greeted by cheering crowds that recalled the 1999 NATO bombing campaign championed by her husband, then-President Bill Clinton, which forced an end to Serbia's "ethnic cleansing" in the largely ethnic Albanian area. Since then, the U.S. government has spent more than $1.4 billion as part of an international effort to rebuild Kosovo and help it develop a government.

Clinton was wrapping up a three-day swing through the Balkans during which she emphasized a stepped-up U.S. commitment to resolving the lingering ethnic disputes sparked by the collapse of communist Yugoslavia.

Speaking in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, Clinton praised a U.N. resolution last month calling for the first talks between Serbia and Kosovo since the conflict. She assured nervous Kosovars that the U.S. government would continue to stand up for the inviolability of this tiny nation's borders.

"Kosovo and the United States have been partners through war, through intensive rebuilding and through Kosovo's hard-fought journey to independence. From the start, the United States supported Kosovo's right to exist as a sovereign, independent state within its existing borders," Clinton said at a news conference.

Her trip was a careful balancing act. To demonstrate her concern for Serbs, a small minority here, Clinton visited a 14th-century Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo and met with mayors of ethnic Serb municipalities. In Belgrade a day earlier, she praised the more moderate course staked out by Serbian leaders in recent years and promised to push Serbia's bid to start the European Union admissions process.

To prove her bona fides to Kosovo residents, Clinton frequently invoked her husband - something she rarely does. "I come not only officially, as secretary of state, but personally - as a member of a family very committed to the future of this country," she said at the news conference.

Kosovo greeted her with wild adulation . Thousands of people lined her motorcade route, some waving American flags. Billboards around town sported her face and the word "Welcome."

On Bill Clinton Boulevard, a major street, the secretary of state alighted from her car in front of a new 11-foot-tall bronze statue of the former president. About 1,000 onlookers snapped pictures and clapped, and some chanted: "Hill-a-REE! Hill-a-REE!"

"Thank you all, thank you!" Clinton cried, waving from below the statue. The secretary of state received a tribute of her own: A "Boutique Hillary" had opened next to the statue, and its proprietor gave her a jacket.

Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, told Clinton that his country was prepared to start talks with Serbia. But it was evident at a town hall meeting Wednesday that Kosovo residents were wary, recalling the Serb military offensive that drove 800,000 ethnic Albanians from their homes in the late 1990s.

Serbia "is a country with terrible appetites," a student warned Clinton.

"There's not going to be any change in status. That decision has been made. The boundaries of Kosovo are set," Clinton said, referring to a recent International Court of Justice ruling that Kosovo's declaration of independence did not violate international law.

Seventy countries recognize Kosovo. Clinton promised to urge others to follow suit.

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