SALZBURG, Austria, March 11 (Reuters) The European Union boosted western Balkan states' hopes of joining the bloc today but warned Belgrade it must still deal with the legacy of Slobodan Milosevic, who died overnight in The Hague.
EU foreign ministers meeting their Balkan counterparts in the Austrian city of Salzburg declared that EU membership was the ultimate goal -- provided the bloc had the capacity to absorb the new members.
When news broke that former Yugoslav President Milosevic had been found dead in his cell at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague, the Austrian EU presidency insisted in a statement that his death did not close the chapter on the past.
''This does not change or alter in any way the need to come to terms with the past, with the legacy of which Slobodan Milosevic has been a part,'' said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the EU was more determined than ever to see top war crime suspects sent to the same U.N. tribunal in the Hague where Milosevic's trial had been due to end soon.
''It is essential that Radovan Karadzic be arrested and transferred to The Hague, it is essential that Ratko Mladic be arrested and transferred to The Hague,'' he said of the fugitive wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs and his military chief.
''I would like to spare a thought for all those who suffered so much from ethnic cleansing, tens of thousands of men, women and children, which Milosevic conceived and planned,'' he told reporters, referring to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
SIGNIFICANT STEPS EU leaders have tried to balance tough words on the need for full cooperation on war crime suspects with more positive language to encourage the nations that emerged from the former Yugoslavia to pursue the reforms required for EU membership.
''All (western Balkan countries) have in the last year made significant steps along their road towards the EU, with EU membership as ultimate goal,'' the 25-nation bloc said in a joint statement with the western Balkan countries.
Under pressure from France, an earlier draft had made no direct reference to possible future membership. The final version reinstated that objective without saying explicitly whose goal it was.
''The EU also notes that its absorption capacity has to be taken into account,'' it said, referring to the ability of the bloc's economy and decision-making structures to cope with new members.
Controversy flared earlier over the European Union's stance on independence for Kosovo from Serbia. Negotiations on the province's future began last month.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sparked a storm on Friday by calling Kosovo's path to independence ''almost inevitable,'' giving the clearest indication so far by a senior Western minister of the likely result of the negotiations.
Douste-Blazy implicitly rebuked Straw today, saying it was best to respect U.N. mediator Martti Ahtisaari ''and not prejudge the outcome of the negotiation''.
Ahtisaari himself declined to interpret Straw's words but said that his remark had been ''carefully said.'' Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu welcomed the comments but Serbia-Montenegro voiced displeasure. ''I am surprised because this statement of Mr Straw is against the charter of the United Nations,'' Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic told reporters.
The province of two million people has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombing drove out Serbian forces accused of atrocities against ethnic Albanian civilians.
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