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EU Could Start Talks With Serbia 'Very Soon'

Olli Rehn (left) with President Boris Tadic (AFP) May 16, 2007 -- The EU says it can restart talks with Serbia "very soon," once Belgrade has shown enough progress on arresting war crimes suspects.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn was speaking in Belgrade hours after Serbia's parliament confirmed a pro-Western coalition government.

The talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step towards EU membership, were suspended in May 2006 over Serbia's failure to arrest and extradite Bosnian Serb genocide suspect Ratko Mladic.

"There is already clear commitment to European integration and cooperation with the ICTY," Rehn said, referring to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

"We expect the new government to rigorously implement its program [on cooperation with the tribunal]. Once that happens, we can resume the SAA process very soon."

Government Approved At Last Minute

Rehn is in Belgrade for talks with President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, whose new coalition was approved on May 15 just before a midnight deadline, averting the need for new elections.

Kostunica says there will be no concessions on Kosovo just for the sake of EU ties.

In a dramatic parliament session, hard-line deputies protested over a late-night police search for Mladic, who they see as a hero, and dragged the debate out to 30 minutes before the constitutional deadline.

Kostunica told parliament his coalition would seek to take Serbia into the EU and cooperate with The Hague tribunal.

Kosovo To Remain 'Province Within Serbia'

But he vowed Serbia would make no concessions on the breakaway province of Kosovo, which a UN-supervised process has set on course for independence, just for the sake of EU ties.

"We would like to state that we will never accept recognition of Kosovo by any side as an act of friendship," he said.

"It will be seen only as an aggressive act of interference in the internal affairs of another state. We would like to say any unilateral recognition of Kosovo may have the consequence of damaging bilateral relations between Serbia and any other state involved. And we will respond in a way that is appropriate in such situations. Our answer to any citizen or country about Kosovo is unchanged: Kosovo remains a province within Serbia."

Kostunica said other key issues for the new coalition will be tackling corruption and instituting social and economic reforms.

The deal on the coalition government was agreed on May 11 after nearly four months of negotiations following inconclusive elections in January.

(compiled from agency reports)

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