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US Hails Progress, Acknowledges Problems in Independent Kosovo

The United States Tuesday hailed progress toward consolidating democracy in Kosovo, now independent for a year. But U.S. officials say they are not trying to paper over problems in the majority ethnic-Albanian former Serbian province, which many countries still do not recognize.

The United States was a key force behind independence for Kosovo, and officials here are hailing strides made by the tiny Balkans state in its first year as a separate entity while acknowledging continued problems.

The former Serbian province seceded from Serbia in 2008, nine years after a war between Serb forces and local ethnic-Albanian guerrillas was ended by a NATO air campaign that drove out Belgrade's forces.

The country celebrated the independence anniversary Tuesday with flag-waving crowds taking to the streets of the capital, Pristina. But there was a somber mood in the country's far north, where ethnic-Serbs predominate, while in Belgrade Serbian leaders stressed their refusal to recognize Kosovo.

Serbian President Boris Tadic said Serbia will never take a single action that implies Kosovo's independence, action it has challenged in the International Court of Justice at the Hague.

At a news briefing here, State Department Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid congratulated Kosovars on the independence anniversary. He said Kosovo has moved quickly to consolidate democracy, including protections for minority rights, as envisaged in the settlement plan of U.N. Special Envoy Martti Ahtissari.

Duguid said 54 countries including a vast majority of European Union, NATO and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe members have recognized Kosovo. Both Serbia and its main political ally Russia reject independence and the new state is afflicted by high unemployment and crime problems.

Nonetheless, Duguid insisted Kosovo is on a path to stability. "There are historic problems that we've all be witness to, that many of us understand. And you're not going to build that state in a short period of time. However, if you look back at where we were ten years ago, I think there's no doubt that Kosovo now is much more stable, and is on the road to creating that multi-ethnic democracy. However, problems remain. One cannot paper over the problems that do remain," he said.

Duguid welcomed the Kosovo government's coordination with the two thousand-member European Union Rule-of-Law Mission in Kosovo, EULEX and other international agencies there and said the world community is prepared to provide support for the new state as long as help is required.

He said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks forward to welcoming Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci to the State Department February 26 to reaffirm the U.S. pledge of friendship and support for the young state.