Albanians in Balkans vow to unite 'within EU'

The leaders of Albania and Kosovo vowed to achieve unity for ethnic Albanians in the region during the centennial celebration of Albania's independence in the Macedonian capital Sunday but said it should be "within EU boundaries".

"Through the European Union we are going to realise the project of our national unity," Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha told some 10,000 people in Skopje.

Berisha insisted that states bordering Albania should not fear this unity.

"I urge all the neighbours to understand that the national unity of Albanians is nothing wrong," he said, cheered by a crowd chanting "Great Albania" and waving Albanian red flags.

His words were echoed by Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaci, who said that Albanians in the region, including the minorities in Serbia and Macedonia, were "stronger than ever and should work together."

Thaci vowed that Pristina "will take care" about ehtnic Albanians in both Macedonia and Serbia, recalling their support during Kosovo's fight for independence from Serbia.

Following the 1998-1999 war with Serb forces, Kosovo Albanians unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008.

The move was immediately recognised by major western powers, including the United States and 22 out of 27 EU member states, but rejected by Serbia, which still considers the territory its southern province.

No incidents were reported during the celebration, which has heightened tensions in Macedonia, prompting police to step up security and Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska to appeal for calm amid fears of possible inter-ethnic violence.

Several incidents had been reported in recent days, with youths setting ablaze the flags of rival communities in Skopje and the Albanian-dominated northwestern town of Tetovo.

A leader of Macedonia's ethnic Albanians and former guerilla leader-turned-politician, Ali Ahmeti, whose party organised Sunday's celebration, also called for respect because "a nation that seeks its rights can not disrespect the rights of others."

Relations between the two communities have been fragile since a seven-month armed conflict between government security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in 2001.

The conflict ended with an internationally-brokered peace deal that improved the rights of ethnic Albanians, who make up 25 percent of the two-million population, but tensions remain high.

Anniversary ceremonies will also be held in the coming days in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of the population, and in Tirana on Wednesday.

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