Serbia, Kosovo talks drag on under pressure to find accord

Serbia and Kosovo were under pressure Tuesday to find common ground in the latest round of their EU-sponsored talks to ease longstanding tensions, described as the most difficult so far.

As talks between the Serb and Kosovo premiers, and EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton dragged on into the evening, a Serbian official said they were being held in "a difficult and painful atmosphere".

This "round is the most difficult so far", said Aleksandar Vulin, head of the Serbian government office for Kosovo, adding they were focused on the key issues, among them security in Serb populated areas of Kosovo.

"We still cannot talk about a step forwards," Vulin said, "nor we can say that we have come close to something that can be described as solution.

"As far as Serbia is concerned, this is not the final round, we are ready to negotiate until a solution is found," he added.

Ashton, who had said earlier that Tuesday's meeting would be "conclusive", met Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci separately in the morning before the three gathered together.

Ashton said Monday she believed an agreement at this eighth round of the normalisation talks was "within reach -- though it will not be easy", adding: "We must not let this opportunity pass."

"We think it's important both for Kosovo and for Serbia to ... move forward both in democratic terms, in economic terms and on their path for European integration," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.

In Pristina on Tuesday, Thaci's office said the Kosovo premier had met US Assistant Secretary Secretary of State Philip Reeker in Brussels before the EU talks.

Thaci expressed his government's "commitment and dedication" to the normalisation process, a statement said, while an accord would mark "the beginning of closing the chapter of conflicts".

Reeker was cited in the statement as saying that the dialogue "should continue to move forward towards European integration and good neighbourliness".

Majority ethnic Albanian Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, winning recognition since then from around 100 countries, including the United States and most EU member states.

Belgrade and Serbs living in Kosovo reject its independence, with the fate of some 40,000 Serbs in the north proving key to a deal.

Both sides have agreed to establish an association of Serb municipalities but Pristina refuses to grant it the executive and judicial power demanded by Belgrade.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic on Monday said recent statements from Pristina were "not encouraging" and seemed meant to present Belgrade with a fait accompli.

"We must ensure the rights (for the association) are guaranteed not only by an agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, but also by the international community, primarily through the EU in its role as a mediator," Nikolic added.

Kosovo fears in turn that a large degree of autonomy for the north runs the risk the area would eventually break away.

The international community "wants to avoid at all costs the creation of a 'Serb Republic' in the north of Kosovo", said one source close to the talks, referring to the Serb entity formed in Bosnia in 1992.

Progress at the talks is seen as essential to keeping the momentum going and Tuesday's meeting could be extended if need be, "although we do not have a lot of time", a source said.

The European Commission is due to issue a report on the negotiations on April 16 which will be forwarded to EU leaders for consideration at their end-June summit.

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