EU moves swiftly to lift Serbian sanctions

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The Independent Online

Europe moved swiftly yesterday to readmit Yugoslavia to the international fold and bolster President Vojislav Kostunica, removing key sanctions against Serbia and promising rapid economic aid.

Europe moved swiftly yesterday to readmit Yugoslavia to the international fold and bolster President Vojislav Kostunica, removing key sanctions against Serbia and promising rapid economic aid.

European Union foreign ministers lifted an oil embargo, a flight ban, and financial and travel restrictions against all Serbs except for the family and associates of the ex-president, Slobodan Milosevic.

Hubert Vedrine, France's Foreign Minister, described last week's events in Belgrade as "historic" and paid tribute to the "courage of the Serb people".

The German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, said: "We have waited long enough for democracy to prevail in Belgrade. We should not hesitate now, but intensify aid at all levels."

While ministers were unanimous in their support for the new Yugoslav president, they avoided some difficult diplomatic and economic dilemmas. They skirted around the problem posed by the continuing presence in Belgrade of Mr Milosevic, an indicted war criminal. Mr Kostunica has said he will not deliver his predecessor up to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Co-operation in this is expected of countries that receive EU aid.

Mr Fischer argued that bringing Mr Milosevic to trial was "not the priority now". Chris Patten, the EU Commissioner for External Affairs, said there was no "contractual conditionality" between aid and cooperation with the tribunal. He added, however, that the policy was to "bring countries closer to the EU on the assumption that they share our values".

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, denied that there was any rift with Washington, after reports that the US administration wanted an agreement to extradite Mr Milosevic before sanctions are lifted. "This has been done with the full agreement, understanding and consent of the government of the US," he said.

"Serbia will have to fulfil its international obligations and part of that is co-operating with the war tribunal. But it is important that we send a strong message to the people of Serbia today by scrapping the sanctions."

On financial assistance, Mr Cook swept aside questions on whether EU member states would back proposals by the European Commission to spend 2.3bn euros (£1.4bn) on the Balkans between 2001 and 2006. "Promising we will spend trillions of euros is not going to cut ice. Showing people that, in the next few months, we have cleared the Danube, built bridges and started to invest in decent manufacturing, will," he said.

Officials from Brussels will start work on assessing Belgrade's financial needs later this week, after a visit from Mr Vedrine, who leaves today for Yugoslavia. Brussels will also start the process of admitting Serbia into the EU's Stability Pact for the Balkans and to regional reconstruction and humanitarian aid projects.

Yesterday's mood was marred only by a strong warning of discontent in Kosovo from the United Nations administrator there, Bernard Kouchner, who argued that the province may still be on the verge of a "catastrophe".

In a presentation to EU ministers, Mr Kouchner said Kosovo Albanians view the election of Mr Kostunica with alarm, as he has a record of aggressive Serb nationalism. They now fear the West will divert resources to Serbia that were destined for Kosovo, he said.

Mr Kouchner called for Belgrade to return Kosovo prisoners held in Yugoslavia as a gesture of goodwill in exchange for the ending of sanctions.

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