EU Kosovo mediator urges move on Serb visas

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BRUSSELS, Oct 14 (Reuters) The European Union's mediator on Kosovo urged European states today to relax visa rules for Serbian travellers, arguing the move could help unlock talks with Belgrade on the future of its breakaway province.

Talking before a new round of negotiations began with Serb and Kosovo Albanian officials in Brussels, Wolfgang Ischinger said the two sides remained far apart even as a December 10 deadline for an accord approached.

''It would be a good signal if we in the EU could let our friends in Serbia know that sooner rather than later the requirement for visas will be lifted for normal travellers from Serbia to EU member countries,'' Ischinger told reporters.

''That is also something that could be helpful in the overall context of these negotiations,'' he added.

In Belgrade, Serb officials reaffirmed their opposition to the independence claims of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority and insisted Serbia must retain sovereignty over the province.

The EU announced accords with Serbia and four other Balkan nations last month making it easier for students, researchers, business people and journalists to travel to the EU, but Belgrade insists visas should be scrapped altogether.

Italy has openly called on the EU to soothe Belgrade on Kosovo by relaxing visa rules and granting it the official status of a candidate for EU membership.

But the EU insists officially there can be no such carrots to lure Belgrade into a deal on Kosovo, and any decision on visas would remain in the hands of individual EU states.

Kosovo Albanians, fed up that their UN-administered province remains in limbo eight years after a NATO bombing campaign to halt Serb atrocities, have threatened to declare independence anyway if no deal is reached by Dec. 10 -- an outcome that could unleash new chaos in the Balkans.

PAINFUL Ischinger appealed to both sides to take ''painful decisions'' to achieve a breakthrough in the talks, noting time was running short for a compromise.

''We have found some encouraging elements ... but we have certainly not seen enough,'' he said of an earlier round of talks in New York last month mediated by Ischinger and his Russian and US counterparts of the so-called ''troika''.

Ischinger said it was possible that, as the deadline neared, the troika would call both sides to a conference of unlimited duration to thrash out a deal, but denied any solution would be imposed on them.

Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic and Minister for Kosovo Slobodan Samardzic led the Serb delegation into today's talks at EU headquarters in Brussels, while Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu and Prime Minister Agim Ceku headed the Albanian side.

Serbia's Politika daily quoted Samardzic as saying Serbia could not move closer to the EU if it lost sovereignty over Kosovo, while Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica vowed independence was not an option.

''Kosovo could become an independent state only if Serbia recognised it as one, or if the UN Security Council violated the UN Charter,'' Kostunica told the main board of his DSS party.

''The whole world knows well that Serbia will never recognise Kosovo's independence, nor will the UN Security Council violate its charter. And that means that Kosovo will never be an independent state or a UN member state.'' Reuters PD GC1803

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