Blair receives hero's welcome in Kosovo
July 31, 1999
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair received an enthusiastic reception from a crowd of several hundred ethnic Albanians when he arrived in Kosovo's provincial capital of Pristina on Saturday.
Blair, making his first visit to Kosovo since NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia, was among the strongest supporters of the punishing 78-day bombing that forced Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end his crackdown against ethnic Albanians.
Cheers, flowers and even a kiss or two were lavished on Blair as he walked through the center of Pristina to meet and shake hands with residents. He also planted a tree to symbolize the rebuilding of Kosovo.
"Mr. Blair was walking down the stairs and I approached him and asked him, 'Can I kiss you?'" said 18-year-old Lorika Tahiri, a local U.N. employee, who saw Blair as he left the U.N. headquarters.
"Then he said 'Yes,' and I'm never going to wash my face again because I never felt anything like that. He is my hero now and forever," she said.
A young boy broke through a tight security cordon to hand Blair a bouquet of flowers and receive a hug in return.
"It's a pleasure to welcome him," said Nexhmije Mehmeti, 62, a housewife who waited in the crowd to catch a glimpse of the British politician.
"During the bombing campaign, his words were our bread, our hope," said Mehmeti, who stayed in Kosovo throughout the 11 weeks of bombardment as hundreds of thousands of others fled from Serbian forces, fearing for their lives.
Blair visited British troops in Kosovo for several hours Friday night after attending a world summit on Balkan stability in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Blair then spent the night in Skopje, Macedonia, and returned to Pristina Saturday morning.
"What has given me pleasure is to see the young children in their homeland in peace," Blair said in an address to the crowd. "This is the hope that we have for the future. This hope lies in the hundreds of these children."
Blair also talked about the importance of reconciling with old enemies and of including Kosovo in "the family of nations in Europe ... with the security that comes and the prosperity that comes from being part of Europe."
Blair met for a half hour with the leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Hashim Thaci, whose popularity among ethnic Albanians has soared in recent months.
The prime minister also met separately with Thaci's main political rival, Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate politician twice chosen by ethnic Albanians to be Kosovo's president in unofficial elections. Rugova recently returned from self-imposed exile during the Kosovo conflict, and his influence has waned during his absence.
U.N. officials administering the province say they regard both leaders as important to Kosovo's political future, but the two have pointedly refused to reconcile.
Blair also met local Serb politicians and leaders of the Serbian Orthodox church, who have expressed concern about revenge attacks against the province's minority Serbs by ethnic Albanians.
Investigators confirmed Friday that three men being held for questioning in the slayings of 14 Serb farmers last week are ethnic Albanian. The killings, the worst single act of violence since NATO troops arrived in mid-June, rattled already shaky Serb confidence in the peacekeepers.
The men in detention denied involvement in the killings and said they have no connection with the KLA, said British Maj. John Wooldridge.
Blair offered 100 British police officers to speed U.N. efforts to create a police force for beefing up security in the troubled region.
"We fought for security for all people in Kosovo," Blair said in his Pristina address. "We know that justice must apply to all people whatever their race, whatever their religion, whatever their class, whatever their background."
Correspondent Nic Robertson and Reuters contributed to this report.
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