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Kosovo reckoning: Blair flies into Pristina to tell the troops: 'This was a just conflict'

TONY BLAIR arrived in Kosovo last night for his first visit since the liberation of the province, bearing the promise of a new "Marshall Aid" plan of economic regeneration. He went to Pristina after the Balkan stability summit in Sarajevo of 40 states and 17 international organisations.

Sitting in the jump seat of an RAF Puma helicopter, the Prime Minister flew low over burned out houses and gutted buildings to see for the first time the devastation wrought across the province.

Mr Blair, casually dressed in an open neck shirt, chatted informally with soldiers as helicopters roared overhead.

"I feel a great sense of pride. I feel that the cause was just. We know that thousands of people were killed and treated with great brutality," he said.

He called for the world to rebuild Kosovo as a "symbol of how the Balkans should be" but conceded that there would be "difficulties along the way".

Asked about the recent violence towards the Serb minority, the Prime Minister replied: "We fought this conflict because we believe in justice, because we believed it was wrong to have ethnic cleansing and racial genocide here in Europe towards the end of the 20th century and we didn't fight it to have another ethnic minority repressed."

Mr Blair was met by General Sir Mike Jackson, the British commander of Nato's Kosovo force, and David Slinn, the new British representative in Pristina before joining the soliders at the K-For headquarters.

He later dined with the general and Bernard Kouchner, the United Nations administrator for Kosovo but, for security reasons, flew out to spend the night in Macedonia.

He is to return to Kosovo today when he will announce that 60 Royal Ulster Constabulary officers are to be sent out to help keep order in the area. They have been chosen because, unlike mainland police, they are accustomed to carrying weapons and working with divided communities.

Mr Blair will also hold talks with Hashim Thaci, leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, his political rival, Ibrahim Rugova, and leaders of the Serbian community. Mr Blair is also expected to meet the people during a walkabout in the centre of Pristina and at a ceremonial tree-planting.

He can be certain of a rapturous reception from the Kosovo Albanians, who regard him as being responsible, more than any other Western leader, for delivering them from the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Among the Kosovar intelligentsia Mr Blair is also seen as someone who can resolve an increasingly tense and violent situation in the province.

Mr Rugova, vilified by the KLA for his relative moderation in dealing with the Serbs, stayed away for six weeks in self-imposed exile after the Nato entry into Kosovo because, it is said, he feared for his safety.

His return is seen as a British diplomatic triumph and provides an alternative focus for those Kosovars who are increasingly apprehensive about the activities of the KLA and their supporters. Yesterday afternoon Mr Rugova was said to be still worried about his safety and was in talks with British diplomats.

The KLA, which has signed a demilitarisation agreement with Nato, has been accused of intimidating not only Serbs but also, on occasions, Albanian political opponents.

There is a perception in Pristina that Mr Thaci and his party had been "adopted" by the US as heir apparents in Kosovo. His relationship with the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who was in Kosovo on Thursday, is said to be particularly close.