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Bush Becomes First US President to Visit Albania


U.S. President George Bush is in Albania to discuss independence for Kosovo and the country's troop commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns is traveling with the president and has the story.

It was a welcome befitting the first American president to visit this former Soviet-bloc nation on the Adriatic. And the Albanian government has gone out of its way to show its enthusiasm for Mr. Bush.

Billboards heralding the visit line the president's route from the airport, with some people wearing tall red-white-and-blue hats. Mr. Bush is pictured on three Albanian stamps, and Tirana has renamed the street in front of parliament in his honor.

That is a big change from other stops on this European trip where Mr. Bush was met by anti-war protesters in Germany and Italy.

Albania backs U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. The government has decided to triple its troop commitment in Afghanistan to 140 and says it will keep about 120 troops in Iraq as long as needed.

Speaking through a translator, Prime Minister Sali Berisha said Albanians are proud of their role in the fight against terrorism.

"I assure you that they will be on your side wherever their modest, but resolute, contribution is needed against international terrorism - this most dangerous enemy of free people," Berisha said.

President Bush said he appreciates Albanian troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and thanked their families for their support.

He commended Albania for working toward membership in the NATO alliance by making political and military reforms and progress against organized crime and corruption.

"I appreciate the fact that Albania is a model of religious tolerance," Mr. Bush said. "And I appreciate the fact that Albania is a trusted friend and a strong ally. And this visit today hopefully will send a signal to the people of Albania: You can count on America just like America can count on you to do hard work necessary to spread freedom and therefore peace."

President Bush and Prime Minister Berisha also discussed independence for Serbia's Kosovo Province with the Prime Ministers of Macedonia and Croatia. It is an especially emotional issue for Tirana as ethnic Albanians make up a majority of Kosovo's population.

President Bush said it is time to stop talking about independence for Kosovo and set a timetable to make it happen.

"The question is whether or not there is going to be endless dialogue on a subject that we have made up our mind about. We believe Kosovo ought to be independent," Mr. Bush said. "

Russia opposes that move, largely because it is concerned about the fate of Kosovo's ethnic-Serb minority.

President Bush says he discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin at this past week's G-8 summit in Germany and addressed Serbian concerns.

"We want to make sure that Serbia hears that the United States supports their aspirations for closer integration with the West. That means working with the United States in a bilateral fashion. It also means potential membership in NATO, for example. I urged the prime minister to work with the leaders in Kosovo to maintain calm during these final stages," Mr. Bush said. "

President Bush wraps up this European tour Monday in Bulgaria.

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