EU rejects call to create Serb cantons in Kosovo

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The Independent Online

Calls for autonomy for ethnic Serbs in Kosovo were rejected by the European Union yesterday. It insisted that the recent violence must not lead to partition.

Calls for autonomy for ethnic Serbs in Kosovo were rejected by the European Union yesterday. It insisted that the recent violence must not lead to partition.

Although Serbia was praised for its role in calming tensions in Kosovo where 28 people were killed, Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, was given a series of uncompromising messages during meetings in Brussels.

EU and Nato officials gave short shrift to Mr Kostunica's plans for more self-government for Serbs in Kosovo; demanded greater co-operation over war criminals; and stressed the need for more market reforms.

The violence has added political momentum to calls in Belgrade for a change in the way that the UN-controlled province is governed. Kosovo has been an international protectorate since the Nato air war in 1999, but decisions on its final status have been put off because of their acute sensitivity.

Yesterday Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, rejected the Serbian premier's plan for a "cantonisation" of Kosovo - an idea designed to give Serb areas more autonomy and protection until the province's status can be agreed.

Although Mr Kostunica has not outlined his proposals in detail, Dusan Batakovic, a Serb diplomat and historian, has called for the creation of five Serb cantons in Kosovo, mostly in the rural areas of the province. Serbs would gain about 30 per cent of Kosovo including the area in which most of the 80,000 Serbs who remained in the province live.

Mr Kostunica backed this type of solution earlier this month in his inaugural speech before the Serbian parliament. He claimed that the "territorial autonomy, partition of Kosovo into entities, or canton- isation" would ensure the security of remaining Serbs in Kosovo where ethnic Albanians are in the majority.

Supporters of the idea cite the precedent of the Dayton Peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995. Under this agreement the country was divided into two entities, one for Bosnian Serbs and the other for Croats and Muslims.

But EU officials are deeply suspicious of the idea which they fear could lead to the eventual partition of Kosovo. On Monday EU foreign ministers reiterated their determination to avoid such an outcome, calling for a "secure and multi-ethnic Kosovo".

Nevertheless the EU and Nato accept that better security for Serbs is needed. Mr Solana, who is due to visit Kosovo today, said: "Minorities, in particular the Serb minority in Kosovo, have not been well protected, that is a fact. We have to see how we can do better."

Calls for greater co-operation with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague were made both by Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Nato secretary general, and Romano Prodi, the European Commission president. Mr Prodi said that co-operation was a precondition for progress in relations with the EU.

Serbia, which wants to start negotiations on a new trade relationship with the EU, and a new partnership with Nato, was told that its prospects depend on improving co-operation. In particular the EU and Nato are pressing for the capture of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander and indicted war criminal thought to be hiding in Serbia.

Mr Kostunica said his government would co-operate with The Hague but in a way "which will not destabilise institutions in Serbia". His government is dependent on supporters of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic who reject cooperation with the court.

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