Serbia and Kosovo have struck a normalization agreement that could set Belgrade on the path to membership of the European Union.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the prime ministers of both sides -- Serbia's Ivica Dacic and Kosovo's Hashim Thaci -- had initialed an agreement during talks in Brussels after months of difficult negotiations.
"The negotiations have concluded," Ashton said. "The text has been initialed by both prime ministers. I want to congratulate them for their determination over these months and for the courage that they have. It's very important that now what we are seeing is a step away from the past and for both of them a step closer to Europe."
The accord is expected to deal with the de facto partition of Kosovo since its declaration of independence from Serbia.
Details of the agreement have not been officially released.
But Dacic said Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo would retain "great power" in several areas, including policing.
According to a leaked copy of the document obtained by RFE/RL, each side also agreed it would not block the other's progress toward EU integration.
The OSCE released a statement praising the deal. It quoted its chairperson-in-office, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara, and OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier welcoming the deal as “an important step in normalization of relations and stability in the region.”
“In welcoming this historic agreement I also call for its effective implementation," Zannier was qujoted as saying. "Where possible, the OSCE will provide concrete support in line with our mandate. We already have the largest international civilian presence in Kosovo, which is working on institution and democracy building and promoting human rights and the rule of law for the benefit of all communities."
"This is the beginning of a new chapter and I support continuation of this dialogue that will improve the lives of all the communities in Kosovo," Kozhara added.
Five Years And Counting
Serbia, and most of Kosovo's ethnic Serb minority, do not recognize the independence that majority ethnic Albanian Kosovo declared in 2008.
The long-running EU-brokered talks were aimed to normalize ties between Serbia and Kosovo, and also settle the status of the ethnic Serbian minority.
Thaci said the initialed agreement "will help us heal the wounds of the past" and hailed the deal as a step in the direction of greater international integration for Kosovo.
"The signing of this agreement is a recognition of Kosovo, its international status, and sovereignty and territorial integrity," Thaci said.
However, Dacic struck a more skeptical note, saying the deal must be first approved by the Serbian government.
"I would like to thank [EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton] for the efforts she put in and showing understanding for the justifiable demands of the Serbian side," Dacic said. "On the other hand, Serbia today didn't accept this agreement -- I just initialed that this text is the final proposal we received from the European Union. Our government needs to decide over the next few days whether we will accept or reject this proposal."
Not A Done Deal?
Reports also say ethnic Serbs in Kosovo could call for a referendum on the agreement.
Belgrade hopes a normalization agreement will be enough to win the green light on April 22 from the EU's 27 members for the start of negotiations on Serbia's membership of the bloc.
The process could take years to conclude.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the possible breakthrough.
He said in a statement that NATO, and its Kosovo force, KFOR, "will continue to ensure a safe and secure environment throughout Kosovo" and "will stand ready to support [its] implementation."
Based on reporting by RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak, with additional reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and dpa