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Kosovo expects deal with Serbia after Ashton visit


Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said Thursday after meeting visiting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that he was hopeful of reaching a deal with Serbia on resolving long-lasting disputes.

"We are optimistic that things are moving in the right direction," Thaci told reporters following Ashton's visit to Pristina. "We are expecting an agreement on the general normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia."

Ashton made a brief visit to Pristina to press for progress in EU-mediated talks aimed at normalising ties between Serbia and breakaway territory Kosovo, holding talks with Thaci, President Atifete Jahjaga and main opposition leaders.

Ashton then left for Belgrade to meet Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Ivica Dacic.

"We are in the last phase of reaching an agreement on normalisation of the relations between the state of Kosovo and Serbia and on full normalisation of the situation in the north," Thaci said.

Ashton said in a statement the talks were "about the implementation of the agreements already reached and about the need to finalise discussions and reach agreements on the open issues, notably on northern Kosovo, as soon as possible."

In Belgrade, the Serbian president also said he was an "optimist" after the meeting with Ashton.

"I am optimistic, we have never been so close to an accord... which will enable Serbs in Kosovo to live within their community and have rules to regulate their life and be linked with Serbia which can help them," Nikolic told reporters after the meeting with Ashton.

But his prime minister, Dacic, seemed to be more cautious, saying that "no one can say at this moment whether we will reach an agreement or not."

On Tuesday, Dacic said that Kosovo Serbs should have "decisive influence" on security and justice issues in the areas where they make up a majority.

Northern Kosovo is home to some 40,000 Serbs who, like Belgrade, reject Pristina's declaration of independence in 2008.

Improved relations with Kosovo and concrete progress in EU-backed dialogue between the neighbours are key conditions for Serbia to be given a date to start EU accession talks and for Kosovo to win visa-free access to EU nations.

Ashton said the meeting with Belgrade leaders was "very useful and constructive" and aimed at preparing the next round of talks between Thaci and Dacic in Brussels on March 20.

In the last six months, Thaci and Dacic have been inching towards a solution over a number of sensitive issues affecting daily life in Kosovo.

Serbia has not had influence over Kosovo since a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 stopped a crackdown by Belgrade forces on the independence-minded ethnic Albanian majority there.

Belgrade has in the past vowed never to accept the independence of Kosovo, already recognised by more than 90 countries, including the United States and most EU member-states.