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Serbia President Visits Kosovo, Says He Opposes Independence

By Nicholas Wood

The New York Times -- VELIKA HOCA, Kosovo

President Boris Tadic of Serbia, in a visit to Kosovo on Sunday and Monday, publicly asserted his country’s claim to the disputed province, vowing never to agree to its independence.

“Independence for Kosovo is unacceptable for me; I will never endorse it,” he repeated in village after village before crowds of ethnic Serbs, who are in the minority in Kosovo.

The visit was the first by a Serbian leader since 1999, when troops sent by the central government in Belgrade to quell an insurgency by ethnic Albanian rebels were forced by NATO-led forces to leave, after being accused of widespread atrocities toward Albanian civilians. The United Nations estimates that as many as 10,000 Kosovo Albanians were killed.

Tadic’s visit has prompted anger among the province’s Albanian majority, most of whom want self-rule. While still formally part of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by a U.N. mission for five years, and U.N.-sponsored talks about the future status of the province are expected later this year.

U.N. officials here said that despite his strong statements as he visited villages, they were encouraged by statements by Tadic, a pro-Western advocate of reform, indicating that he firmly supported the status talks.

Since 1999, the local Serbs have borne the brunt of the Albanian community’s anger. In spite of a peacekeeping force that numbered 44,000 at its peak and remains close to 18,000, fewer than half of the original 230,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo. Many of them live in remote areas and are unable to travel freely for fear of attack.

In March, 19 people were killed during riots in which Albanians attacked Serbs and other minorities.

Tadic visited some of the most isolated and impoverished Serbian communities that remain. In each village he handed out Serbian flags, implored his audience to remain and asserted Serbia’s claim to the region.

“I hope that institutions or our state will be here more concretely,” he told a small crowd in Orahovac, a town in western Kosovo.

Here in the village of Velika Hoca, where 600 Serbs live surrounded by barbed wire and 24-hour armed protection, he spoke in a packed movie theater. “I’ve never been anywhere and seen people the way they are in Velika Hoca,” he said. “”I thank you for staying in this area in such difficult conditions.“

The crowds responded with rapturous applause to this rare visit by a senior leader, in a region where many Serbs feel forgotten by the Serbian government or used as a political football.

“Other politicians should come more frequently to see what is going on, and not just before elections as some of them do,” said Trifun Stosic, 54, a cook in Belo Polje.