By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 7, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today congratulated the citizens of Kosovo on their progress in establishing the newest nation on Earth. Gates became the first U.S. cabinet officer to visit Kosovo since it declared its independence from Serbia in February.
Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu thanked America for its support of the nation and thanked Gates for his efforts. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci also thanked the secretary following meetings at the airport and promised the country would do all it can to integrate Serbs and Kosovar Albanians in the new nation. Thaci promised that the Kosovo security force would be pro-Western and under civilian control.
"I'm pleased to be here to congratulate your leaders in person and to re-emphasize our commitment to all of the citizens of Kosovo," Gates said.
Gates said the discussions he had with Kosovo's leaders were productive. "We reiterated our commitment to maintain current U.S. troops levels under United Nations authority," he said. About 1,600 American troops are serving in Kosovo.
"I reaffirmed the pledge that President Bush made to the people of this region and our NATO partners: 'We came in together, and we go our together,'" Gates said. "We all look forward to the day when peace is self-sustaining."
Gates also is visiting U.S. troops. "I want to thank our troops that stationed here," he said. "We often hear about deployments elsewhere in the world, but I want to personally convey to the members of the Kosovo Force that they are neither forgotten nor unappreciated -- a point made abundantly clear in our meetings this morning."
The secretary said the dedication and professionalism of American troops is a bedrock in making NATO's Kosovo Force "the most trusted and respected institution in Kosovo."
"It has helped transform a once-troubled region into a peaceful place where all citizens have the opportunity to live in freedom," he said.