NOVI PAZAR, Serbia — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received a rousing welcome on Wednesday as he visited a predominantly Muslim region in southwestern Serbia.

Thousands of people waving Turkish and Serbian flags lined the streets of Novi Pazar, in the Sandzak region, where Erdogan arrived with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. The cheering crowd held banners praising Erdogan, while many struggled to shake hands with the Turkish president.

“Sandzak is one of the bridges that connect us,” Erdogan said in a speech translated from Turkish into Serbian and aired on Serbian state TV. “We can all see how our emotional connection has had a positive effect on our bilateral ties.”

Erdogan is on a two-day visit to Serbia, pledging to boost economic and other ties as part of stepped-up efforts by Ankara to increase its clout in the Balkans.

Relations between Serbia and Turkey have improved in recent years after decades of mistrust between the two nations. Serbia was ruled for almost 500 years by the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey backed Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s war that pitted them against the Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Sandzak, where many people consider Bosnia or Turkey — rather than Serbia — as their motherland, has remained peaceful but tense over the years.

Vucic conceded in his address that he will “not be greeted half as (warmly) as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”

“But, I have the courage to say I will work in the interest of all nations,” he said.

Erdogan has praised Vucic for supporting him during last year’s failed coup that he blames on the movement led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who denied involvement. A banner in Novi Pazar on Wednesday showed Gulen dressed in a prison uniform.

In his speech, Erdogan urged that the Balkans’ bloody past be replaced with unity among the region’s many nations. He said Turkey and Serbia share common views.

“We have felt at home during this visit to Serbia,” Erdogan said. “We will preserve our friendship.”

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IVANA BZGANOVIC
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