The U.S. Defense Secretary has reaffirmed his support for Kosovo, vowing to keep U.S. troops there until at least 2009.

Robert Gates is the most senior U.S. official to visit Kosovo since it declared independence from Serbia in February.  He told reporters Tuesday that the United States strongly supports Kosovo's territorial integrity. 

He also stressed that partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines, as some Serbs have suggested, is not a solution.

The United States has a force of about 1,500 troops in Kosovo as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force. 

Serbia considers Kosovo its religious and historic heartland and, along with Russia, has rejected its declaration of independence.

Serbian President Boris Tadic has said he would consider dividing Kosovo only as a last resort, if Serbia cannot keep the province under its control.

Gates, who will meet with Kosovo's top leaders during his visit, said his main goal is to meet with U.S. soldiers. 

After Kosovo, Gates heads to Macedonia, which wants to join NATO.  He then goes to a meeting of the alliance in Hungary Thursday and Friday.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.