Deal with Serbia still possible before EU ruling: Kosovo

PRISTINA Tue Apr 9, 2013 10:52am EDT

Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is pictured during a news conference in Pristina September 10, 2012. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is pictured during a news conference in Pristina September 10, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Hazir Reka

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo on Tuesday raised the prospect of another push for a deal with Serbia to tackle the ethnic partition of the former Serbian province, with Belgrade's hopes of starting European Union accession talks hanging in the balance.

Serbia on Monday rejected the principles of an accord that emerged from six months of EU-mediated negotiations, saying they fell short of the broad autonomy it seeks for a small Serb pocket of majority-Albanian Kosovo.

The EU says it wants a deal in place before it considers this month whether to recommend the start of membership talks this year, a process that would help drive reform and unlock EU funds for the ailing Serbian economy.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been mediating the negotiations, is due to submit a progress report on April 16. She had said an inconclusive 12-hour meeting last week between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo would be the last.

"Given the circumstances, and also that Serbia said it is ready for more talks, I believe there will be one last attempt," Bekim Collaku, an adviser to Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, told Reuters. "If another meeting happens it would be logical to take place before the 16th."

Kosovo, where 90 percent of the 1.7 million people are Albanians, broke away from Serbia in a 1998-99 war and declared independence with the backing of the West in 2008.

Serbia retained de facto control over a small enclave of the north where some 50,000 Serbs live - an ethnic partition that frequently flares into violence and which the EU wants ended before it sets Belgrade on the long path to membership.

Expressing disappointment at Serbia's rebuff of the deal, Ashton urged Belgrade on Monday to make "a last effort to reach an agreement". Her statement appeared to hold open the chance of more talks. "They (Serbia) need to come up with very clear ideas of what they want," an EU source said.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a former EU and U.N. envoy in the Balkans during the collapse of federal Yugoslavia, tweeted: "In spite of difficulties we must not give up efforts to get agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. Much at stake."

Serbia suggested informal talks were continuing.

"We are continuing consultations both with Pristina and Brussels in search of compromise and a durable and sustainable solution," Serbian Trade Minister Rasim Ljajic told Reuters on the margins of a regional summit in the Bosnian city of Mostar.

"We're waiting for the EU response. This is not about buying time or delaying for the sake of delay, but to give us a chance to reach agreement."

(Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic in Mostar; Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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