PRISTINA, Kosovo - Thousands of ethnic Albanians braved low temperatures and a cold wind in Kosovo’s capital to welcome Bill Clinton yesterday as the former president attended the unveiling of an 11-foot statue of himself on a key boulevard that also bears his name.
Clinton is celebrated as a hero by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority for launching a 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslaviathat stopped the Serb forces’ crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.
The visit was Clinton’s first to Kosovo since it declared independence from Serbia last year.
Many of those gathered waved American, Albanian, and Kosovo flags and chanted “USA!’’ as Clinton climbed atop a podium with a poster behind it reading “Kosovo honors a hero.’’ Some peeked out of balconies and leaned on window sills to get a better view. To thunderous applause, Clinton waved to the crowd as a red cover was pulled from the statue.
“I never expected that anywhere, someone would make such a big statue of me,’’ Clinton said of the gold-sprayed statue.
Clinton also addressed Kosovo’s 120-seat assembly, encouraging members to forgive and move on from the violence of the past.
The statue portrays Clinton with his left arm raised, his right hand holding a portfolio bearing his name and the date (March 24, 1999) when NATO started bombing Yugoslavia.
An estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed during the Kosovo crackdown, and about 800,000 were forced from their homes. They returned after NATO-led peacekeepers moved in following 78 days of bombing.
Clinton last visited Kosovo in 2003, when he received an honorary university degree. His first visit was in 1999, months after some 6,000 US troops were deployed in the NATO-led peacekeeping mission here.
Some 1,000 American soldiers are based in Kosovo as part of NATO’s 14,000-strong peacekeeping force.