Serbia, Kosovo in fresh effort to normalise ties

Crunch talks on normalising Kosovo-Serbia ties that are key to their prospects of joining the European Union resumed in Brussels on Friday, the EU said.

The premiers of Serbia and Kosovo, Ivica Dacic and Hashim Thaci, hurried back to Brussels on the request of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton less than 48 hours after the collapse of talks to clinch a deal.

"Both the delegation from Serbia led by PM Dacic and the delegation from Kosovo led by PM Thaci have now arrived (for talks with Ashton) in the framework of the EU-facilitated dialogue for normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina," Ashton's office said.

Talks Wednesday had been billed as a last-chance round in two years of efforts to ease tension between the pair but they got bogged down over how much autonomy to give ethnic Serbs in Kosovo who, like Belgrade, refuse to recognise Pristina's 2008 declaration of independence.

An agreement is needed in the coming days if Belgrade is to be given a date at a June EU summit for the launch of long hoped-for negotiations to join the 27-nation bloc.

If there is no deal before an EU ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on Monday, Serbia's integration into the EU could be delayed indefinitely.

Germany, however, which plays a leading role in Western Balkans policy, has said the EU should go ahead with talks on a pre-accession pact with Pristina whether or not a deal is reached.

Ashton reckoned Wednesday that a deal was not far off, differences previously having been "narrow, but deep," while "today the differences are narrow and very shallow".

She had said there were "some hours left" ahead of the key EU ministers' meeting Monday that will focus on the Western Balkans. And she hoped both sides "will reflect on whether they can take the final steps necessary to finish this agreement and to move their people forward into the future".

Serbia continues to refuse to recognise Kosovo's independence, even though more than 90 countries have done so, including the United States and all but five EU member states.

An accord has floundered over the fate of some 40,000 ethnic Serbs living in north Kosovo who refuse to recognise Pristina's authority and have set up their own "parallel" structures.

Serbia wants Kosovo to agree to decentralised Serb "municipalities" in the northern enclave with their own police and courts to guarantee that ethnic Serbs get fair representation in Kosovo.

But Pristina is wary of Belgrade meddling in Kosovo affairs through the Serb community and refuses to see "a state within a state" in its north.

Serbian media said Wednesday that the EU was offering a compromise in which the northern Serbs would be guaranteed a fair share of regional and local police chiefs as well as the presidency of a regional court.

Serbian media said the EU offer suggested that NATO be put in charge of supervising security.

Asked to comment on Friday, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen made no specific comment on a possible additional role for NATO's Kosovo force, KFOR, but said: "I really welcome all the efforts to find a political solution... NATO fully supports this dialogue."

"We are ready to make our contribution (to a solution)... which I hope to see very soon."