See the conquering hero arrive - or perhaps not

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The Independent Online
FOR A while it seemed that Tony Blair was about to experience his second damp squib of the week, as the crowds initially failed to materialise for his victorious walkabout in Pristina.

It was going embarrassingly wrong for the Prime Minister when he arrived in the capital and there were barely a couple of hundred people to greet him.

The reason was not any desire to snub him - he is by far the most popular Western leader here - but a huge number simply did not know he was coming. Such was the attempt to make this day a "surprise" visit, and so great was concern about security, that there had been no advance notice. One local radio station, unable to get official word, said the visit was off.

At the end the crowd swelled to between 1,000 and 2,000, with people rushing over from their homes and jobs after hearing about the visit on the local bush telegraph. Mr Blair eventually received his victor's laurels in Kosovo from a crowd that hailed him as the man who had helped to deliver them from exile into their promised land.

He was hugged and kissed and cheered. And at the end, his emotional and moving speech was interrupted repeatedly with roars of approval.

This was much in contrast to another visit by a foreign dignitary, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, three days ago. This was widely publicised by the Americans with the usual hype; as a result the warm- up act got four times the crowd of yesterday's main event.

One of the main problems was the indisputable pulling power of Mr Blair. Senior military and civilian officials had estimated that up to 50,000 would turn up, raising serious security implications in an area still intensely fragile.

Mr Blair's visit is seen as an attempt to help to resolve some of these problems. The return of the moderate Kosovan Albanian leader, Dr Ibrahim Rugova, from exile is seen as a British diplomatic success and offers the electorate an alternative to the Kosovo Liberation Army and its leader, Hashim Thaci.

There has been increasing concern about the activities of the KLA among the intelligentsia in Kosovo. Dr Rugova, who had been vilified by the KLA for his supposed "softness" towards the Serbian regime, is said to have stayed away because he felt he was in danger.

The Prime Minister held separate meetings with the two men in which he stressed the necessity of adhering to the democratic process and the economic benefit this will bring from the European Union and the USA. One of Dr Rugova's leading supporters said afterwards it was unlikely he would ever work in the same government as Mr Thaci.

Mr Blair also met two Serbian community leaders, Momcilo Trajkovic and Father Sava, who have both disassociated themselves from Slobodan Milosevic. They were urged to persuade Serbs to stay in Kosovo and not to become yet another batch of refugees. However, with almost daily attacks on the community by Albanians seeking revenge, few people foresee the two communities existing side by side.

Mr Blair has promised to send up to 120 British police officers to help to carry out law enforcement in the province. Sixty of them would come from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with their experience of combating terrorism. However, it remains unclear whether British officers would be allowed to carry firearms, seen as imperative in this violent area.

After the official engagement came what was undoubtedly the highlight of the visit: Mr Blair's walkabout on one of the capital's main streets. He was greeted with warmth, families clapping and cheering and children dashing out to hug him. From time to time flowers rained down on him, as they had on Nato soldiers when they liberated the province. Mr Blair seemed deeply touched by the affection and, unlike the American soldiers guarding Ms Albright, the Prime Minister's guard allowed the crowd as much leeway as possible.

Afterwards Mr Blair met some children who will be among those taking part in a city-centre regeneration scheme with British aid. He spoke about the fortitude the Kosovars had shown in the face of savage oppression and repeatedly stressed this was their homeland - undoubtedly encouraging the nationalistic fervour of the Kosovars who want to break away completely from Serbia.

Speaking without notes, Mr Blair said: "I am so proud to be here, and I'm so proud to see you back in your homeland where you belong. We can see the evidence all around us of the terrible events of the last few months. Now I believe we can see the chance for hope, peace and prosperity for the future.

"Your courage inspired us. We know that justice must apply to all whatever their race, whatever their religion, and whatever their background. We want all the people of Kosovo, whether Albanian or Serbian, to live in peace and friendship."

Mr Blair stressed that while half a century ago western Europe was engaged in the conflagration of the Second World War, former enemies were now creating a prosperous European Community. He held out the same hope for the Balkans with the promise of economic help.

"I feel so moved and so touched by the warmth you have shown me and even more pleased to see young children living in the homeland in peace. They are the hope we have for the future. I am proud to have been here with you and I will feel proud to come again when Kosovo is rebuilt and people can live in justice and peace."

The Prime Minister and his entourage then left with chants of "Tony, Tony" accompanying him. The crowd were in various degrees of rapture. Samina Harisha, a 17-year-old student, giggled: "He's handsome. I want to marry him. If not him that one there," pointing at Mr Blair's spokesman, Alastair Campbell.

Others were more reflective. Fadil Gashi, a 50-year-old engineer whose brother was killed by Serbian paramilitaries at their home south of Pristina, said: "I just came to pay my respect. I have lost a lot, my home was destroyed but at least I am back now in Kosovo and I want to thank the British Prime Minister for that."

Emir Rexha, who has just returned from Germany, added: "We know what Mr Blair has done. He stood by us when the other Europeans were becoming weak. I am glad he came here." As he spoke, Anthee Masruddin came running up clutching two bags of shopping. "Has he gone? Has he gone? I got here as quickly as I could when I heard he was here but none of us knew."

n A Serb farmer was shot dead while picking plums in Stanisor, a village in southeast Kosovo yesterday morning, a US peacekeeping force spokesman said.

I CAME, I SAW AND HERE'S MY SOUNDBITE

"I'm so proud to be here in Pristina, Kosovo. I'm so proud to see you here back in your homeland where you belong.

"What has given me pleasure more than anything else is to see the young children today living again in their homeland in peace...they are the future of Kosovo.

"We want all people here in Kosovo, whether Albanian or Serbian, to live in peace, security and friendship, one with another.

"We fought in this conflict for a cause and that cause was justice... and your courage inspired us.

"I look forward to the day when I come here again, when Pristina is rebuilt, when Kosovo is rebuilt and when all people here live in justice, partnership and friendship for the future.

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