UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -- The UN Security Council cleared the way on November 26 for a European Union police and justice mission to deploy in Kosovo, in a statement welcoming agreement by Serbia and Kosovo to the move.
The EU mission is intended ultimately to take over from a UN mission that has administered the former Serbian province from 1999. Kosovo, 90 percent of whose people are ethnically Albanian, declared independence from Belgrade in February.
Many Western countries have recognized Kosovo but Serbia, backed by Russia, has refused to do so. The Security Council has long been divided over the future of Kosovo and Wednesday's statement was the first time the 15-nation body had been able to agree on it since the independence declaration.
In speeches to the council, Serbian and Kosovo ministers clashed over details of future operations of the EU mission, known as EULEX, but made clear they accepted the deployment.
"The Security Council...taking into account the positions of Belgrade and Pristina...which were reflected in their respective statements, welcomes their intentions to cooperate with the international community," said a formal statement agreed upon by all council members.
"This will create the conditions for a quick deployment of EULEX," the UN special envoy to Kosovo, Lamberto Zannier, told reporters. All parties had seen Security Council backing as a precondition for the EU to move in.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said last week he hoped EULEX would deploy in Kosovo in early December. The move has long been supported by Western countries, which see it as part of a gradual normalization of Kosovo.
The United Nations began running Kosovo after NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of mass killings of civilians.
In February, the EU agreed to send EULEX to take over from the world body and oversee the police, judiciary and customs, but its deployment was delayed first by opposition from Serbia and later by objections from Kosovo.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon won over Serbia with a six-point plan whereby police, customs officers and judges in Serb-run areas of Kosovo would remain under the UN umbrella, while their Albanian counterparts would work with EULEX.
Kosovo, even though it had pledged to cooperate with EULEX, said the plan violated its constitution and would result in a de facto partition of the fledgling state. Many of the remaining 120,000 Serbs in Kosovo live in the north.
The eventual council statement got round the problem by failing to mention the six-point plan, despite earlier pressure from Russia to do so. But Serbia and Kosovo remained divided over the plan.
"The Republic of Serbia gives its full consent to the six points agreement and conditions laid out to the deployment of EULEX," Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said.
Kosovo Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni said Pristina continued to reject the plan. But he said the council's statement "did bring a clear support of the council for the EULEX deployment throughout Kosovo."
The council agreement on Kosovo is significant after what appeared to be an unbreakable deadlock on the issue and the deterioration of Russia's ties with the West after it invaded its neighbour Georgia in August.
Western diplomats admitted the statement papered over differences on Ban's plan and details of how EULEX would operate and take over UN functions remained to be negotiated. They said the important thing was to get the EU mission on the ground and leave the details for later.
"EULEX's deployment is an important step forward in the integration of the region into the European Union," British envoy Karen Pierce told reporters.