PRISTINA/BELGRADE The unification of Albania and Serbia's majority-Albanian former province of Kosovo is "inevitable", whether it happens through membership of the European Union or not, Albania's prime minister said on Tuesday.
The suggestion was denounced in Belgrade, where a senior official accused Tirana's Prime Minister Edi Rama of "banging the war drums" over Kosovo, which many Serbs regard as the cradle of their nation and Orthodox Christian faith.
Serbia and the West are sensitive to any talk of unification of Albania and Kosovo, something Western powers ruled out when they backed Kosovo's secession from Serbia in 2008.
Kosovo and NATO-member Albania have long said they hope to 'unite' under the flag of the EU, where open borders are more freely crossed by people and goods.
But many people in the Balkans, wracked by instability and war in the 1990s after the Cold War ended, are frustrated by what they see as EU reluctance to open its doors to the region.
"The unification of the Albanians of Albania and Kosovo ... is inevitable and unquestionable," Rama said in an interview late on Monday with the Kosovo broadcaster Klan Kosova.
"The question is how it will happen. Will it happen in the context of the EU as a natural process and understood by all, or will it happen as a reaction to EU blindness or laziness."
Criticizing the EU's reluctance to extend a visa-free regime to Kosovo, Rama said the bloc should think more strategically and "demand that the Balkans should become part of it as soon as possible.
"Then, of course, all ethnicities in the Balkans would be together without the need to deal with borders," he said.
An adviser to Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said Rama should stop "banging the war drums", while Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic took to Twitter to say Albania and Kosovo would "never unite".
"I ask Albanian leaders to stop inciting instability in the region," Vucic tweeted.
Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO intervened with air strikes to drive out Serbian forces and halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians during a two-year counter-insurgency war.
The young country has been recognized by more than 100 countries, including 23 of the EU's 28 members, but Serbia says it will never follow suit.
"We warn the Republic of Albania to stop banging the war drums, to devote itself fully to respecting its international and good-neighborly obligations," Serbian presidential adviser Marko Djuric told a news conference.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Tom Heneghan)