Envoys from EU, U.S., meet Kosovo Serbs as differences resurface

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BELGRADE (Reuters) - European Union and U.S. envoys met officials in Kosovo's ethnically divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica on Thursday as longstanding differences between Belgrade and Pristina flared again, triggered by a dispute over car number plates.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. But Belgrade accuses Pristina of trampling on the rights of minority Serbs, who account for 5% of Kosovo's 1.8 million population, which is 90% Albanian.

EU-sponsored talks in Brussels earlier this month failed to overcome differences that centre on a plan by Pristina to require local Serbs to switch their car number plates from Serbian to Kosovo ones.

On Sunday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said minority Serbs working in Kosovo institutions would leave their jobs unless a deal is reached to end what he called their "persecution".

After meeting Kosovo Serb representatives in the northern, predominantly Serb part of Kosovska Mitrovica, EU mediator Miroslav Lajcak said the talks focused on "hearing first-hand" about their position.

"Whatever decision is made, the Serbs who live there are at the center of that decision and every bad decision worsens their lives and a good decision improves it," he said.

Lajcak and U.S. envoy Gabriel Escobar met Vucic in Belgrade on Thursday in talks that Serbia's president said would resume later in the evening.

"We had talks ... that were not easy," Vucic said on Instagram. "My message to our people in Kosovo: we will always look to preserve peace and stability, we will be fighting for the peace and stability, but not for a second, rest assured ... we will not back away from our vital national and state interests, and above all from the interests of our people, your safety and security."

Lajcak and Escobar have also met senior Kosovo officials in Pristina.

Many Serbs in Kosovo have changed their registration plates and identification papers, but some 50,000 living in the north, who see Belgrade in Serbia as their capital, created road blocks last month in protest at the requirement before NATO peacekeepers oversaw their removal.

(Reporting by Branko FIlipovic, writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Richard Chang)