Kosovo celebrates 15 years of independence with eye to reaching deal with Serbia

PRISTINA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Kosovo feted 15 years of independence with a parade of soldiers and police cheered by thousands in Pristina on Friday with an eye to a normalisation deal with Serbia, key to stability in a region still scarred from ethnic wars in the 1990s.

Crowds waving Kosovo and Albanian flags lined a main street in the capital as police and troops marched past, but there were no celebrations in the country's north where minority Serbs have long resisted Pristina's authority.

"Our independence was achieved through struggle and sacrifice, but our independence will only grow through work," Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said ahead of the parade.

Tensions with Serbia linger as Belgrade continues to support the refusal of 50,000 minority Serbs in north Kosovo to accept the country's independence, declared almost a decade after an uprising against repressive Serbian rule.

Serbia, whose forces were driven out of ethnic Albanian-majority Kosovo by NATO bombing to stop a brutal security crackdown by Belgrade, still deems its former southern province an integral part of its territory.

U.S. and European Union envoys are pressing the countries to approve a peace plan presented in mid-2022 under which Belgrade would stop lobbying against Kosovo having a seat in international organisations including the United Nations.

The office of EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced that Kurti would meet Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels on Feb. 27 to discuss the 11-point plan.

Under it, Kosovo would commit to forming a semi-autonomous association of Serb-majority municipalities in the north, where nationalist Serbs have clashed repeatedly with police trying to apply the Pristina government's writ.

Belgrade and Pristina have both accepted the EU plan in principle, though said further negotiations would be needed. Resolving their volatile stand-off is a major condition for Serbia and Kosovo to progress towards EU membership.

"We welcome your endorsement of the EU proposal on normalisation, with the eventual goal of mutual recognition which would help secure a more peaceful and prosperous future for the people of both Kosovo and Serbia," U.S. President Joe Biden said in a letter to Kosovo counterpart Vjosa Osmani on Thursday evening.

Ali Reshani, 73, among thousands of Kosovars gathering in Pristina's streets for the Feb. 17 independence anniversary, told Reuters: "Thanks to God we have our own police, we also have our own army. I expect better days."

He added: "I hope God will give good things to the Americans for helping us."

The anniversary was ignored in the Serb-majority town of North Mitrovica in north Kosovo.

Local Serb taxi driver Lazar Kostic, 58, said he had ethnic Albanian friends but was in touch only by phone. "(Kosovo) doesn’t mean anything to me personally. It is not a state and for me it never will be," he told Reuters.

Alluding to the former federal, multinational Yugoslavia torn apart by ethnic wars in the 1990s, he said: "We grew up during times when it was not important who or what you were or what your name was. Those were the happy times. But, when politics got involved in our lives, it became another story."

Additional reporting by Branko Filipovic in North Mitrovica; editing by Mark Heinrich

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