Serbia, Kosovo leaders to hold symbolic first meeting

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Serb and Kosovo leaders meet for the first time in Brussels on Wednesday in a highly symbolic encounter that marks an important step in EU-sponsored efforts to improve relations between the former foes.

The meeting, chaired by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, comes nearly 14 years after the end of the 1998-1999 conflict between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian separatist guerrillas and Belgrade security forces.

Following a three-month-long NATO bombing campaign launched to halt Serbia's crackdown on Kosovo's independence-seeking rebels, Belgrade troops were expelled from the Serbian province, a move that paved the way for Pristina to unilaterally declare independence in 2008.

Brussels sees the talks between Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and his Kosovo counterpart Atifete Jahjaga as a way to normalise relations, despite Belgrade's refusal to recognise the independence of the breakaway territory.

Analysts say the meeting is more important for ultranationalist-turned-conservative Mr Nikolic who, before his election in May 2012, was a fierce opponent of dialogue with Pristina.

"I think

Nikolic is not very happy to go to Brussels, but the EU and the United States are determined to see this meeting take place," said Belgrade political analyst Dusan Janjic.

The Serbian and Kosovo presidents both have a largely ceremonial role in domestic politics where executive powers reside in the hands of their prime ministers.

The two premiers, Serbia's Ivica Dacic and Kosovo's Hashim Thaci, have already met four times in Brussels since October, with Ms Ashton as mediator.

Brussels has pushed the two sides to establish proper relations in order to ease daily life of their people, hinting to Belgrade that it might grant it a date to start EU membership talks. It is also holding out the carrot to Pristina of an accelerated path towards the bloc.

So far, Belgrade and Pristina have agreed on border controls, customs and other issues aimed at easing day-to-day life for Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanian population of 1.8 million.