Pasjane: Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic on Wednesday launched a highly symbolic Orthodox New Year vist to Kosovo, the former Serbian province that unilaterally seceded in 2008 despite Belgrade`s fierce opposition.
Vucic`s landmark stopover, which will not include meetings with Kosovo`s leaders, started in the village of Pasjane, a Serb enclave in the country`s east. Several hundred fellow Serbs greeted the premier upon his arrival to inaugurate a maternity ward there.
Later in the day he was to visit Strpce and Gracanica, two other significant Serb enclaves, scattered throughout the breakaway territory of nearly two million that is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.
Two-thirds of the 120,000-strong Kosovo Serb minority live in enclaves, while some 40,000 live in the north, near the border with Serbia.
The premier`s entourage also included Serbia`s ministers of defence, interior, justice, health and work.
Unlike more than 100 other countries, including the US and most of the EU`s 28 member states, Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo`s independence, but both Belgrade and Pristina have been forced to normalise ties if they want to progress towards EU membership.
Kosovo`s leaders in Pristina said they approved the visit which is both "humanitarian and religious" in nature, Foreign Affairs Minister Hashim Thaci told reporters.
"We strive to intensify visits on both sides, we must not be afraid to communicate," Thaci added.
Links between Belgrade and Pristina have improved since their relations were put on a more formal footing in 2013 with an agreement brokered by the European Union.
Following the 1998-99 war between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, a NATO bombing campaign forced Serbian troops to withdraw from Kosovo and cede control of the territory.
After the recent election of a new Kosovo government that ended a six-month political crisis, new talks between Belgrade and Pristina on deepening their relations are expected to take place in Brussels in early February.