Kosovo decorated former US president Bill Clinton with an “Order of Freedom” medal on Tuesday in gratitude for his support for the former Serbian province as it cleaved away from Belgrade 20 years ago this week.
As president, Clinton ordered US troops to join the 1999 NATO intervention that ultimately ousted Serb forces from Kosovo, where they had been battling ethnic Albanian rebels.
The move has made him a hero in Pristina, where he landed Tuesday ahead of the 20th anniversary of June 12 -- the day when NATO troops entered Kosovo and the war was over. In a ceremony broadcast on TV, a smiling Clinton was handed the medal by President Hashim Thaci.
“No prize can award your contribution, the highest decoration you can receive is the freedom of Kosovo itself,” Thaci told Clinton. The US president said he would “always be proud” of his contribution.
“I happened to be president of the United States when you needed someone to stand up and say no more ethnic cleansing, no more running people out of their homes, no more killing innocent civilians. There’s gotta be another way,” he said.
The former Democrat leader added that despite a “very contentious political environment in America, you (Kosovo’s independence) seem to be one of the things that all Americans agree on”.
Clinton, who already has a statue in Pristina and a street named after him, will deliver a public speech on Wednesday for the anniversary ceremony. Immediately after the war, Kosovo was turned into a UN protectorate.
A decade later it declared independence in 2008 with support from Washington and much of the West. Yet Serbia has never accepted its statehood and the former war foes continue to clash diplomatically, hampering Kosovo’s efforts at full global recognition.