Serbia will not sign Kosovo deal - deputy PM
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia will reject a European Union-brokered plan for Kosovo as it fails to give broad autonomy to minority Serbs in its former province, an official said on Monday, in a decision that may delay EU accession talks.
Serbia has been under intense Western pressure to reach a deal with Kosovo, which seceded in 2008, before the EU rules on whether to open membership talks with the Balkan country. The bloc is expected to take a preliminary decision this month.
Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, leader of the largest party in Serbia's ruling coalition, said the proposal that has emerged from months of negotiations mediated by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, "fails to recognize our basic interests and should not be signed".
"We will ask that the dialogue continue, we need a solution as soon as possible," Vucic told reporters after a meeting of leaders of his Serbian Progressive Party. He said the government would confirm the decision later on Monday.
On April 16, Ashton is to issue a report likely to decide whether the EU opens accession talks with Serbia this year, a process that would drive reform and help lure investors to the ailing Serbian economy, the biggest in the former Yugoslavia.
Kosovo, 90 percent of whose 1.7 million people are Albanians, broke away in war in 1998-99 and declared independence in 2008. But Serbia retained a fragile hold on a northern pocket where some 50,000 Serbs live in a de facto partition of the young country.
The EU says the partition must end, and Serbia and Kosovo must "normalize relations", in order for Belgrade to move ahead in its efforts to join the bloc.
Negotiations between the two broke up last week without result, and Serbia said Ashton had set a Tuesday deadline for it to decide whether to accept the proposal, which aims to reintegrate the Serb-populated north with the rest of Kosovo.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Alistair Lyon)