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By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo said on Thursday it was close to reaching an accord with Serbia to improve relations, with the European Union's foreign policy chief visiting both capitals to press for a deal that would open the door to membership talks with Serbia.
Serbia does not recognise Kosovo's 2008 secession, but is under pressure from the European Union to improve ties and help overcome a de facto ethnic partition between Kosovo's Albanian majority and a small Serb pocket in the north.
"Right now we are at the beginning of the end in reaching an agreement to normalise relations between the state of Kosovo and Serbia," Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told reporters after meeting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Pristina.
"We're optimistic that things are moving in the right direction," he said, in the most positive comments from the former guerrilla commander in months of negotiations with Serbia.
Ashton left for Belgrade to meet Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and did not speak to media.
She has been mediating talks between Dacic and Thaci since late 2012, as the European Union pushes to establish functional, neighbourly relations between Serbia and Kosovo five years after the former province declared independence with the backing of the West.
The shuttle diplomacy comes with the clock ticking down to an April 16 progress report on the negotiations.
That report will decide whether the bloc launches accession talks with Serbia in June, a process that would drive reform and send a message of stability to investors interested in the biggest economy in the former Yugoslavia.
The Kosovo talks hinge on how to deal with a small area in the north where Serbs reject Kosovan statehood. Serbia retained de facto control over the northern Serb enclave when NATO wrested Kosovo from former Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 to halt a counter-insurgency war.
Serbia's nine-month-old coalition government, an alliance last in power under Milosevic, has offered to recognise the authority of Thaci's government over the Serb north in exchange for its autonomy.
But Thaci said the north would have not have any "legislative or executive mandate".
He is next due to meet Dacic in Brussels on March 20.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Pravin Char)