Serbian Official Raises Eyebrows With Visit to Kosovo

A senior Serbian official entered Kosovo on Monday to visit Serb communities — a move Kosovo's deputy prime minister denounced as a provocation.

Serbia's minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, was making a one-day visit Monday — eight days after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia — to meet with Kosovo's Serb minority and with the top U.N. official, Joachim Ruecker.

U.N. officials originally announced they wouldn't let Samardzic enter Kosovo, but changed their minds.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian deputy prime minister, Hajredin Kuqi, called Samardzic's visit a "provocation" by Serbia, which refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence.

"Unfortunately, the government of Serbia is continuing with provocation regarding Kosovo's future," Kuqi told The Associated Press.

"I hope they are understanding the position that Kosovo is now an independent state," he said. "They need to build some bridges for cooperation with Kosovo, but ... they are provoking us, provoking our people and raising tension in Kosovo."

Serbia, which considers Kosovo the heart of its ancient homeland and the cradle of its Serbian Orthodox faith, has rejected Kosovo's Feb. 17 declaration of independence as illegal.

Belgrade has been backed by Russia, which insists that independence without U.N. approval risks encouraging separatist movements worldwide.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority fought a 1998-99 separatist war with Serbian forces, and 10,000 people were killed.

Samardzic on Monday visited a construction site southeast of the capital, Pristina, where Serbia's government has been building houses for some of Kosovo's 100,000 minority Serbs.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci — marking Kosovo's first full week of independence — urged Serbs to integrate with Albanians and pledged that the new state's ethnic Albanian leadership would respect minority rights.

But Samardzic has ignored such statements, and publicly supported Kosovo Serbs who set fire to a border post in the tense north last week.

Ruecker said Monday that the U.N. reconsidered its original decision to keep Samardzic out of Kosovo on condition that he issue a public statement "making it very, very clear that he distances himself from violence and the visit is about ensuring peace and calm with the Kosovo Serbs."

Ruecker said he also insisted that Samardzic meet with the U.N. official so "I can tell him what we think of some of his recent statements."