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Merkel urges Serbia, Kosovo to normalize relations

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Germany urged Serbia on Monday to stop supporting ethnic kin in Kosovo and seek direct talks instead with the ethnic Albanian-led government in its former province.

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Serbs have put up barricades in the last few months to block traffic and attacked NATO troops in the largely lawless north of the tiny country, bordering with Serbia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the barricades should be removed. But she also urged Kosovo to do more to fight crime and corruption, speaking in Pristina airport after talks with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.

“There is a need for free trade, which is not possible at the moment due to the barricades,” Merkel told reporters.

“It is important that common border controls be implemented and we must also step by step reach a stage where there are no parallel (Serb) structures,” she said, referring to the refusal of ethnic Serbs in the north to accept Pristina’s authority.

Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, declared independence from Belgrade in 2008. Serbia refuses to recognize it and Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs, who dominate in a small slice of the north, continue to function as part of Serbia.

Merkel said she would like Kosovo and Serbia to normalize relations and hold talks.

“I said in Serbia what we expected from Serbia. And I am saying now here in Kosovo what that Kosovo side can contribute also. I believe the best ... is always direct talks with the respective partners,” Merkel said.

Thaci said he would pursue talks with Serbs in the north and with Belgrade.

Germany has the biggest military contingent in Kosovo, with some 1,800 soldiers serving in NATO’s peacekeeping mission in the country. The NATO commander is also German, and Merkel met with German troops stationed in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, during her brief visit.

Thirty German and Austrian soldiers were injured earlier this month when hundreds of Serbs resisted an attempt by NATO to remove the roadblocks they had put up in the north. The violence prompted the European Union on December 9 to shelve Serbia’s bid for the status of candidate for EU membership.

EU leaders assessed that Serbia had not done enough to improve relations with its former province.

Some 85 countries, including the United States and 22 of the EU’s 27 members, have recognized Kosovo, the last country to emerge from the remains of old federal Yugoslavia.

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed for 78 days to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in a two-year counter-insurgency war under then-President Slobodan Milosevic.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alessandra Rizzo