Kosovo PM hails first slain family

On the eve of Kosovo's declaration of independence, its prime minister paid tribute Saturday to an ethnic Albanian family whose 1998 slaying became a rallying point for Kosovo's struggle to be independent from Serbia.

Kosovo PM hails first slain family
Hashim Thaci, a former war leader of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, was greeted by applause and cheers as he shook hands with villagers in Prekaze, 25 miles southeast of the capital, Pristina.

"Tomorrow will be a historic day in our efforts to create a state," Thaci told reporters after laying a wreath of flowers in a cemetery holding the remains of 53 ethnic Albanians who were massacred.

Kosovo was expected to declare independence on Sunday, backed by the European Union and the U.S.

Thaci met with the surviving relatives of the Jashari family, whose deaths at the hands of Serbian forces made them revered by ethnic Albanians as heroes of Kosovo's struggle for independence.

The family's attempt to defend the village cemented ethnic Albanian resistance to Serbia's rule, and marked the appearance of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army that launched an independence war in 1998-99.

The fighting ultimately led NATO to intervene. Some 10,000 people died during the 1998-99 war, and nearly 1 million others were driven from their homes.

"I am so happy this is finally happening. We have waited for centuries for this moment," said Sheribane Abazi, a 45-year-old geologist. "Without the Jashari family, there would be no independence."

Ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population. The rest are minority Serbs who oppose Kosovo's independence and insist the province should remain under Belgrade's control.

Thaci was the political head of the KLA and he became prime minister after last year's elections.

Across from the cemetery, houses destroyed in the 1998 attack have been turned into a museum, and guides retell the story of the slaughter.

Braving freezing temperatures Saturday, visitor Arton Mehmeti walked around the compound with his wife and four children.

"This place reminds me that independence was not achieved overnight," said Mehmeti, 32, visibly moved by what he saw. "There's a legacy to it. It took a whole family to perish and then for many more to follow for us to get to where we are now."

Güncelleme Tarihi: 17 Şubat 2008, 14:37