EU cites 'progress' in difficult Serbia-Kosovo talks, sets fresh round

A new round in EU-sponsored talks Monday between Serbia and Kosovo, aimed at defusing tension in one of Europe's last trouble-spots, ended with Brussels citing "progress" but with no tangible deal.

European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said a sixth round of talks she chaired with Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Kosovo Premier Hashim Thaci "made good progress.

"There will be some work done between now and 20 March 2013 when we will meet again," Ashton said.

Monday's round tackled 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 across Kosovo.

Belgrade has been urging Pristina to agree to the establishment of an association of Serb municipalities that would have strong connections with Serbia. Kosovo accepts the creation of the body, "but on condition it has no power," said a western diplomat familiar with the talks.

"The two sides need more time, they are too far apart," said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The EU has brokered talks between the two since March 2011 in an effort to ease tension after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

The 27-nation bloc hopes that offering the possibility of EU membership for Serbia and closer ties with Kosovo will help speed a normalisation in ties.

Serbia hopes to be given a date to start EU accession talks at a summit in June while European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has said Kosovo could get an agreement on an association accord at the same time.

Serbia is being asked to agree to give up some of its ties with the Serb minority, especially in northern Kosovo, while Pristina is being asked to do more to politically integrate the Serb ethnic community.

The fractious neighbours have reached several key agreements as part of the EU-brokered dialogue, notably on the control of border posts. They have also agreed to establish 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.