WASHINGTON Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday reaffirmed U.S. backing for an independent Kosovo on the eve of a ruling by the International Court of Justice on the legality of its formal secession from Serbia in 2008.
Biden issued the assurance of U.S. support in a meeting with visiting Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, the White House said.
Serbia had asked the world court in The Hague to determine whether the declaration of independence by its former province, ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo, was legal.
The ICJ's decision to be issued on Thursday is only a non-binding, advisory opinion, but the long wait for a ruling has prevented any serious attempt to find an accommodation.
This in turn has blocked the European Union membership prospects that both parties need to attract foreign funds to alleviate poverty and popular frustration.
A ruling in Kosovo's favor could lead more countries to recognize its independence, while an adverse opinion could push it into negotiating a settlement with Serbia. Kosovo has been recognized by 69 countries, including the United States.
"The vice president reaffirmed the United States' full support for an independent, democratic, whole, and multi-ethnic Kosovo whose future lies firmly within European and Euro-Atlantic institutions," the White House said in a statement after the two leaders met.
It said Biden also "reiterated the United States' firm support for Kosovo's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 when NATO bombed it to halt the killing of ethnic Albanians in a two-year counterinsurgency war.
After nine years under an international mandate, the Albanian majority, backed by the United States and most EU member states, declared independence -- which Belgrade pledged never to accept.
Serbia hopes the ICJ decision, followed by a United Nations resolution, can restore its claim on the Balkans' smallest country, one of the poorest corners of Europe.
In his talks with Thaci, Biden welcomed what the White House described as "progress that Kosovo's government has made in carrying out essential reforms, including steps to strengthen the rule of law and successfully integrate minority communities, and he underscored the need to sustain these efforts."
Biden also commended Thaci for "reaffirming Kosovo's willingness to work with all of its neighbors, including Serbia, to advance stability, freedom, and prosperity."
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Eric Beech)