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Serbia, Kosovo reach agreement to implement EU-backed deal normalising ties

By Fatos Bytyci

OHRID, North Macedonia (Reuters) -Kosovo and Serbia have reached an agreement on implementing a European Union-backed deal to normalise ties, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said late on Saturday, though the two leaders said disagreements remain.

Kosovo and Serbia have been in EU-backed talks for nearly 10 years since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after war ended Serbian rule. But Serbia still regards Kosovo as a breakaway province and flare-ups between the Balkan neighbours have stoked fears of a return to conflict.

The agreement on Saturday came after 12-hour talks between Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and EU officials on implementing the deal, which both sides had agreed to in Brussels last month.

The two leaders held separate meetings with Borrell before a three-way session in North Macedonia.

"Kosovo and Serbia have agreed on the implementation annex of the agreement on the path to normalisation of relations between them," he told reporters after meeting both leaders in the North Macedonian town of Ohrid.

Vucic told a news conference the parties have not agreed on all points.

"Despite differences, we had decent conversation," he said.

Speaking at a different news conference, Kurti said, "This is a de facto recognition between Kosovo and Serbia" since Serbia has not yet signed the agreement.

Borrell said the EU will now forcefully demand both sides to fulfil obligations if they want to join the bloc, warning there would be consequences otherwise.

He also touched upon a proposed association of Serb municipalities in Kosovo, which would give greater autonomy to Serb majority municipalities, a long disputed topic.

"Kosovo has agreed to launch immediately - and when I am saying immediately, I mean immediately - negotiations with the European Union facilitated dialogue on establishing a specific arrangement and guarantees to ensure an appropriated level of self-management for the Serbian communities in Kosovo," the EU top diplomat said.

In the annex on the implementation of the agreement published on Saturday evening, the EU committed to organising a donor conference within 150 days to set up an investment and financial aid package for Kosovo and Serbia.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold, Ivana Sekularac and Andrew Gray; Editing by Kirsten Donovan, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Josie Kao)