Serbia, Kosovo presidents to hold first talks since secession

BELGRADE/PRISTINA Fri Feb 1, 2013 12:26pm EST

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BELGRADE/PRISTINA (Reuters) - The presidents of Serbia and Kosovo will hold talks next week in Brussels for the first time since Serbia's former province seceded in 2008, officials said, in the latest sign of progress in EU-mediated talks to reconcile the neighbors.

The February 6 meeting will be the first between Serbia's Tomislav Nikolic, once a firebrand advocate of the Greater Serbia policy that fomented the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and Atifete Jahjaga of majority-Albanian Kosovo.

The EU is pressing both sides to mend ties five years since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, before the bloc moves ahead with Serbia's bid to join.

The main talks, chaired by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, involve the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo, who will meet again later in February. A meeting of their presidents will be seen as symbolic of the shifting mood.

"The president will travel to Brussels on Wednesday, February 6 to meet Atifete Jahjaga," an aide to Nikolic told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity before the official announcement. The official declined to elaborate.

Asked about the meeting, a spokeswoman for Ashton said: "We ... believe that the meeting of presidents is important for the normalization of relations and we hope it will happen soon."

The predecessors of Nikolic and Jahjaga met during negotiations before the secession.

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999, when Nikolic was part of a government in Belgrade fighting a counter-insurgency war in the then province.

NATO bombed targets in the then Yugoslavia, comprised of Serbia and Montenegro, for 78 days to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians.

The bombing resulted in the withdrawal of Serb police and Yugoslav military from Kosovo, which became a ward of the United Nations, although Serbia kept de facto control over a Serb-populated pocket of the north.

The country of 1.7 million people has been recognized by more than 90 countries, including the United States and 22 of the EU's 27 members. Serbia says it will never follow suit.

Asked about the meeting, a spokesman for Kosovo's Jahjaga said "the meeting will be held soon".

Mired in recession and with fellow ex-Yugoslav republic Croatia poised to join the EU in July, Serbia's government appears to be taking a softer line on Kosovo in the hope of securing EU accession talks and the signal that will send to would-be investors.

Belgrade has so far agreed to the joint management of its border with Kosovo, including a customs regime, to recognize Kosovo vehicle license plates, identification papers and university diplomas. Implementation has sometimes been patchy.

(Editing by Matt Robinson)

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