TIRANA (Reuters) - Serbia and Albania should put aside their differences over Kosovo and forge closer economic ties to help both countries fulfil their ambitions to join the European Union, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic said on Wednesday.
Speaking in Tirana during the first official visit by a Serbian leader to its southern neighbor, Vucic described the two nations as the backbone of the Western Balkans.
"I wish to extend the hand of friendship to the Albanian people ... We think differently (over Kosovo) and will keep thinking differently, but this will not change our strategic relations for the future on economic ties," Vucic said.
Greater regional cooperation is among the conditions for EU entry.
Serbia does not recognize the independence of its former province, which it considers the cradle of its nation and faith but whose 1.8 million people are mostly ethnic Albanians. Kosovo seceded in 2008, almost a decade after NATO went to war to halt a wave of ethnic cleansing by Belgrade troops.
Belgrade and Kosovan leaders in Pristina are nevertheless in talks to find ways to normalize the lives of their citizens, another condition of Serbia's EU membership bid.
A visit to Belgrade last year by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, the first for nearly seven decades, was billed as an historic reconciliation, although his impromptu call there for Serbia to recognize Kosovo briefly chilled relations again.
On Wednesday, Rama pointed to Germany and France after World War Two as the example Albania and Serbia should follow.
"Peace is brittle and a big burden on our shoulders so we need ... concrete help from the European Union and the European Commission," Rama said. "We can get more support together than on our own, to maximize the gains for our peoples."
Vucic said he and Rama had agreed to write to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asking for money to help build sections of a motorway that will connect Serbia's city of Nis with Albania. The road will pass through Kosovo.
Rama said the two countries also backed the building of a highway linking Croatia and Montenegro with Albania and Greece, seeing road links as a way to bring their peoples closer.
The Western Balkans has largely stabilized since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s -- of which the 1998-99 Kosovo war was the final chapter -- but widespread poverty, joblessness and political feuds continue to fuel tensions.
"I am convinced that Serbia and Albania are very important for the Western Balkans, and every relationship can improve," Vucic told a news conference with Rama on Wednesday that was translated into Albanian.
Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Catherine Evans