Serbian, Kosovo prime ministers have rare talks, to meet again

BRUSSELS Fri Oct 19, 2012 5:28pm EDT

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo met on Friday for the first time since the breakaway province gained independence, in hopes of thawing relations and opening the way for progress in their respective bids for European Union membership.

The EU wants Serbia and Kosovo to cooperate better on issues such as security and trade even though Belgrade refuses to recognize the sovereignty of its former ethnic Albanian majority province, which declared independence in 2008.

But talks on cooperation, mediated by the EU, have been slow to show sufficient results, costing Serbia an opportunity to start accession negotiations with the 27-nation bloc this year.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after hosting Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and Serbian counterpart Ivica Dacic for more than an hour in Brussels on Friday that the talks were held in a "constructive atmosphere".

"We agreed to continue the dialogue for the normalization of relations between the two sides and both committed to working together," she said in a statement. "We will meet again soon."

There was no immediate comment from Thaci or Dacic.

The meeting marked the first official talks between a serving Serbian government leader and his Kosovo opposite. Earlier this year former Serbian president Boris Tadic briefly met Thaci at the sidelines of a forum in Croatia.

Thaci is still sought by Serbian police over alleged war crimes related to the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict in which he commanded ethnic Albanian rebels.

For his part, Dacic served as spokesman for the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who led Serbia during the bloody 1990s break-up of the former federal Yugoslavia, and is unapologetic for his party's central role in that conflict.

In Brussels, Dacic and Thaci discussed ways to restart an EU-brokered dialogue to normalize their relations and what can be done to speed up the process.

Prospects for a thaw between Kosovo and Serbia were further clouded earlier this year with the election of a nationalist-leaning Serbian president, Tomislav Nikolic, in May.

Both Nikolic and his Kosovo counterpart, Atifete Jahjaga, have since said they were ready to meet and speed up talks on relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after a NATO-mounted air war against Serbian military and police forces accused of trying to purge Kosovo of ethnic Albanians to put down the uprising. Over 90 countries including the United States and most EU members have recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state.

(This story adds clarification first meeting since Kosovo became a state, omits refusal to meet)

(Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Mark Heinrich)

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