US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will hold talks with Kosovo leaders Wednesday to urge them to step up its efforts for EU and NATO integration in order to secure peace in the volatile Balkans region which she is touring.
Clinton was welcomed at Pristina airport on Tuesday by Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga, ahead of the formal talks beginning early Wednesday.
Together with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has joined her on part of her five-nation regional tour, Clinton came to Kosovo from Serbia, where she pushed Belgrade to normalise relations with Kosovo, even without recognising the independence of the breakaway territory.
"The United States urges all parties to implement the agreements reached to date (in the EU-brokered talks between Belgrade and Pristina), and to advance concrete measures to normalise relations," Clinton said after meeting Serbian leaders in Belgrade.
The disputed status of Kosovo is the main bone of contention still affecting regional ties after the break-up of the communist former Yugoslavia, which collapsed in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s.
Washington is one of the main supporters of Kosovo's independence, unilaterally proclaimed in 2008.
But Serbia rejects Kosovo's independence, recognised by some 90 states including 22 of the European Union's 27 members as well as the United States.
During her visit to Belgrade, Clinton insisted that the dialogue "does not require Serbia to recognise Kosovo".
Talks between Belgrade and Pristina were launched in March 2011 under EU auspices but were suspended before elections in Serbia in May that were won by nationalists.
They finally resumed in October, with a meeting between Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and his Kosovo counterpart in Brussels.
Brussels has stressed that progress in the talks is a key factor if Serbia, which won EU candidate status in March, is to move forward and open full accession talks.
Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga (R) of Kosovo walks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she arrives at Pristina International Airport in Pristina, Kosovo, on October 30. Clinton will hold talks with Kosovo leaders Wednesday to urge them to step up its efforts for EU and NATO integration in order to secure peace in the volatile Balkans region which she is touring.
"Normalising relations is critical if Serbia and Kosovo are to achieve a future of lasting peace and opportunity, as their people deeply want and deserve," said Clinton.
"This was my message here in Belgrade and I will repeat it tomorrow in Pristina," she added.
While insisting that Serbia would not recognise Kosovo's independence, Dacic said Belgrade was "ready... for the talks" expected to resume in November.
The talks are meant to ease daily life for the inhabitants of Kosovo, ethnic Albanians and Serbs alike, who face many administrative hurdles because of the disputed status of the territory.
Clinton said Washington was "committed to seeing Serbia and all the countries in this region, realize their aspirations for integration into the European and Euro-Atlantic community."
Prior to the visit, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told his cabinet that it would be a "clear message of support for Kosovo."
Pristina expects "strong support" from both Washington and Brussels for its "integration into NATO, EU and UN," Thaci said.
Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga (2nd L) speaks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) as Minister for European Integration of the Republic of Kosovo Vlora Citaku (R) speaks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (2nd R) at Pristina International Airport. Clinton will hold talks with Kosovo leaders Wednesday to urge them to step up efforts for EU and NATO integration
Kosovo could take a first step towards joining the EU in the first half of 2013 if it makes solid progress in the rule of law, protection of minorities and other political reforms.
US officials, notably former president Bill Clinton, are considered in Kosovo to be key supporters of Pristina's bid for independence from Serbia.
In 1999, the then president Clinton ordered US forces to take part in the NATO bombing campaign that drove Serb troops under the command of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo.
His bronze statue graces central Kosovo's Bill Clinton boulevard.
Taxi driver Beqir Bajrami said Kosovars "will never forget that Hillary and Bill Clinton saved Kosovo from Milosevic."
"They did not let him to expel all Albanians and make Serbs rule here. I thank them for our freedom,” 39-year old Bajrami said.
And 27-year old vendor Esat Hajdini said Kosovo "politicians have to do what they are told" by Hillary Clinton, as the US "will not make us do anything that will harm our country."
"We owe America a lot. If America says we have to talk with the Serbs, we have to do it,” he said.
Clinton will end her tour in Croatia -- due to become the EU's newest member next year -- and Albania, which both joined the NATO transatlantic military alliance in 2009.
Of the six ex-Yugoslav republics, only Slovenia has joined the European Union in 2004, while Croatia is due to become a member next July.