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Albanian muslims cheer bush and america { June 11 2007 }

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From the Los Angeles Times
Albania makes Bush feel at home
Thousands greet the president, whose democracy message and support for an independent Kosovo have earned him popular support.
By James Gerstenzang
Times Staff Writer

June 11, 2007

TIRANA, ALBANIA President Bush called for quick action Sunday to turn Kosovo into an independent nation, as he won a gushing official welcome and a frantic, arm-grabbing show of popular support from crowds during the first visit to Albania by an American president.

It was a unique day in the recent history of the Bush presidency: The U.S. leader, whose stops in Italy and Germany earlier on this trip prompted massive demonstrations against him and the Iraq war, could not suppress a satisfied smile as Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha called him "the greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times."

At a news conference with Berisha, Bush said that if diplomats' efforts did not succeed in changing the status of Kosovo, which is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian, "sooner rather than later, you've got to say enough is enough, Kosovo is independent."

"There just cannot be continued drift," Bush said, insisting on the need for a deadline on the fate of the Serbian province. "I'm worried about expectations not being met in Kosovo."

In Fushe-Kruje, a town about 30 minutes from the Albanian capital, Tirana, the president was nearly manhandled by townspeople lining the two-lane main street. They whistled, cheered, applauded and shouted, "BOOSH-Y BOOSH-Y!"

They grabbed his arms nearly up to his shoulders. They reached around him to pull him toward them from the back of his head. Secret Service agents held him by the waist to keep him from falling into the crowd.

There is perhaps no place in Europe besides Albania, the poorest country on the continent in the heart of the troubled Balkans, where Bush would find such an excited welcome from the top of government to those in the streets, and to the streets themselves, one of which already has been named after him.

The reception, said some of those waiting to see him drive through Tirana's central Skanderbeg Square, reflects support for Bush's pro-democracy message, notwithstanding the criticism he engenders elsewhere for the Iraq war. That message is a vivid contrast to Albania's wretched post-World War II history, when for four decades it was a Stalinist enclave run by dictator Enver Hoxha. The appreciation also reflects Bush's support for Kosovo Albanians' efforts to gain independence from Serbia.

There were dozens of Kosovars sprinkled throughout a crowd of several thousand outside the Tirana opera house. They had made an eight-hour trip by bus in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Bush.

The international effort to move Kosovo from its status as a Serbian province to independence is built on a United Nations plan that would give it "supervised independence." The U.S. government enthusiastically supports the move, but Russia just as adamantly opposes it, in part because it would set a precedent for other republics or ethnic regions that might seek to break away from Moscow.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday proposed delaying any decision on Kosovo's status by six months to give Serbia and Kosovo time to work out a deal, and to address Russia's concerns. But U.S. and U.N. diplomats note that several years of talks have not brought the two sides any closer.

Because Kosovo has a largely ethnic Albanian population, the province's independence is of crucial importance to neighboring Albania. But Serbia regards the province as the cradle of its Orthodox Christian faith and cultural history, and Belgrade is loath to relinquish it.

Protection for Orthodox religious sites and for the thousands of Serbs who continue to live in Kosovo is another outstanding issue in the independence plan and the reason that some form of supervision, probably by the European Union, would be required by the U.N.

Just beyond the Mother Teresa airport, named for the Albanian nun born in what is now Macedonia, Bush could get a sense of the welcome that awaited him: Along the main road, where the remains of pillbox fortifications built by Hoxha still sit, were huge billboards with the slogan "President Bush in Albania, making history."

Police officers and soldiers were stationed about 20 yards apart for miles along the route, lined by spectators waving American and Albanian flags.

Paper Uncle Sam stovepipe hats of red, white and blue were ubiquitous; several were stacked on the window seat of a small mosque in the downtown square.

Muslims make up about 70% of Albania's 3.6 million citizens, and in the mosques, too, there was support for Bush.

Artur Mulaj, 36, speaking French, said that America was "formidable" and that he favored its conduct in Iraq "because it is against terrorism."

Outside the opera building, Ilir Lamce, 37, a financial analyst and accountant, said that while he was growing up during the Hoxha era, "my father, my mother, my education told me that America loved freedom."

"Because George Bush and America love freedom, this is the reason we are here," he said.

Besides the handshake and hug at the end of their news conference, Berisha offered Bush something the president finds in few other countries: The prime minister said Albania was tripling, to 120, its troop contribution to the U.S.-led effort to stabilize the government in Afghanistan against the Taliban.

Underscoring Albania's bid to join NATO, Berisha said it would increase its defense budget by 2%. Bush, in turn, said he favored the application to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and noted that Albania had 120 "elite commandos" in Iraq.


Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.

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