World News

Kosovo approves team for talks with former adversary Serbia

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo’s parliament voted on Saturday to form a negotiating team to try to resolve outstanding disputes with Serbia, amid growing tensions between the two neighbors.

The two countries committed to a European Union sponsored dialogue aimed at setting all remaining issues between them in 2013, but little progress has been made since.

Relations between Belgrade and Kosovo have been strained since 2008 when Pristina, with the backing of western countries, declared independence from Serbia.

Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci raised concerns at home in June when he announced that he will seek a solution with Belgrade by changing borders.

And on Friday they reached a new low when Kosovo’s parliament voted to approve the creation of a 5,000-strong standing army, only a week after Serbia’s premier suggested such a move could provoke military intervention by Belgrade.

Thaci’s plan has rung alarm bells among many politicians in Kosovo, its Balkan neighbors and for some western diplomats who see it as an attempt to take three Serbian municipalities inhabited mainly by Albanians.

In return, Serbia would get part of northern Kosovo which is populated mainly by Serbs who refuse to recognize the authority of the government in Pristina.

Kosovo is recognized by more than 110 countries, including the United States, but not by Serbia, Russia or China.

Washington has said it will accept any deal if Serbs and Albanians agree, but opponents of border changes say it would validate ethnic cleansing, which was one of the main causes of the fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s.

“Today we have taken a decision that is important to save our sovereignty and integrity and in partnership with the international community,” Kadri Veseli, the speaker of the Kosovar parliament, said after the resolution, which will be backed by law within 30 days.

Most opposition MPs boycotted the session to approve the negotiating team, which will have 12 members from government, the opposition and civil society.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Alexander Smith