BELGRADE A former translator for war reporters became the first minister of an independent Kosovo to visit ex-master Serbia on Friday, speaking publicly of the fear she once had of Belgrade in the latest gesture of rapprochement between the Balkan neighbours.
Vlora Citaku, Kosovo's Minister for European Integration, was not received officially by the Serbian government but her speech at a forum in a Belgrade hotel would have been unthinkable as recently as a year ago.
Since then the European Union has brokered a landmark accord to settle relations between Serbia and its former southern province, which could see the bloc endorse the start of membership talks with Belgrade next week.
"I do hope that my generation will be the very last one that had to grow all their life in fear of Belgrade," 32-year-old Citaku said in a speech to the conference, organised by Belgrade's Forum for Ethnic Relations to discuss the accord.
Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as sovereign, but Citaku's visit reflects a sea-change in official Serbian policy towards its former southern province as Belgrade seeks the economic boost of closer ties with the EU.
"We were terrified of Belgrade, as the source of the military forces that came to burn our villages and cities," Citaku said of Kosovo's 1998-99 war. "Unfortunately, I've seen more massacres, more killed men and raped women than any teenager should see."
Citaku worked as a translator for foreign correspondents covering the war, when forces under late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic massacred and expelled ethnic Albanian civilians during a campaign to crush a guerrilla insurgency.
NATO intervened with 11 weeks of air strikes, driving Serbian forces from Kosovo. The territory became a ward of the United Nations until it declared independence in 2008 with the backing of the West. It is recognised by around 100 countries.
Ordinary Kosovars are used to crossing the border with Serbia but Diaspora Minister Ibrahim Makolli was refused entry a year ago and the Kosovan government said Citaku was the first minister to have been allowed entry.
Citaku has been a close aide to guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci, now Kosovo's prime minister. He remains persona non grata in Serbia, but spent six months negotiating the April accord with his Serbian counterpart, Ivica Dacic, in Brussels.
The two met again on Thursday and EU foreign policy Catherine Ashton, who is mediating the talks, said she would inform the 27-nation EU that concrete steps had been taken "towards a visible and sustainable improvement of relations".
Under the accord, Serbia will relinquish its de facto control over a small, Serb-populated pocket of northern Kosovo.
Serbia hopes the deal will be enough to clinch a date for the start of accession talks when EU leaders meet on June 28-29. Talks would help drive reform in the biggest country to emerge from federal Yugoslavia, luring much-needed investors and unlocking EU funds.
Kosovo hopes to begin talks with the EU on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, a pre-accession pact and the first rung on the ladder to membership.
(Additional reporting by Valerie Hopkins; editing by Patrick Graham)