Kosovo seeks US backing on limited rights for Serb minority

Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci urged the United States on Wednesday to back Pristina in its refusal to grant further concessions to the territory's Serb minority, a statement said.

Thaci called on US Deputy State Secretary William Burns to show "support" for Pristina's stance not to give the Serb minority more rights that could "undermine the constitution and internal order", according to a statement from his office.

Thaci's call came ahead of the next round of EU-sponsored talks with his Serbian counterpart Ivica Dacic in Brussels on March 4, aimed at normalising ties between the long-time foes.

During their talks, the pair are expected to tackle one of the most complex and sensitive issues between the two neighbours -- the political and economic rights of some 40,000 ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo who refuse to recognise Pristina's authority, as well as 80,000 others in enclaves scattered throughout Kosovo.

Thaci and Dacic, negotiating since October under the mediation of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, already discussed the issue earlier this month without an obvious breakthrough.

Thaci said he was ready to accept the establishment of an association of Serb municipalities, but he added that "it cannot have executive powers" as this would undermine Pristina's rule.

Belgrade, meanwhile, wants the association to be a decision-making body, under Pristina authority, but with strong connections with Serbia.

Both Serbia and Kosovo are under pressure to significantly improve relations in order to progress towards accession into the European Union.

Serbia is being asked to revoke its support for the Serb minority especially in northern Kosovo, while Pristina is being asked to do more to integrate the Serb ethnic community in the political scene of the breakaway territory.

The two neighbours have already reached several important agreements as part of their ongoing talks, notably on the control of border posts. They have also agreed on establishing so-called "liaison officers" in both capitals.

Following the 1998-1999 conflict that ended when NATO aircraft ousted Serb forces from Kosovo, the ethnic Albanian majority in Pristina unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia in February 2008.

Belgrade has staunchly refused to recognise Pristina's independence but the US and most of the EU's 27 member states have done so.