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<Deal would be welcomed by Serbian Christians

<End ethnic tensions is part of plan

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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife

Catherine-Ashton

EU's Cathering Ashton expects breakthrough



PRISTINA/BELGRADE (BosNewsLife)-- The European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton says Serbia and Kosovo are close to a deal to end the ethnic partition of the former Serbian province.

She spoke after the leaders of both nations expressed optimism about an agreement as early as this week.

An accord would be welcome news for Serbian Orthodox Christians in Kosovo who hope to see an easing in ethnic tensions with the mainly Muslim ethnic Albanians.

Christians have struggled with with a "sharp rise" in threats and vandalism against their churches and other religious sites, human rights investigators told BosNewsLife.

CHURCHES ATTACKED

Since  Orthodox Christmas assailants attacked a monastery, set on fire a chapel and wooden crosses, and destroyed over 100 Orthodox tombstones, reported Belgrade-based Balkan rights group Centar 9.

At the heart of EU-mediated talks is the status of Kosovo's Serb-dominated north where the central government has very little presence.

In a significant U-turn, Serbia offered to recognize the authority of Kosovo's government over the north, in exchange for autonomy for Serbs living there.

The two sides were at odds however over the powers any Serb institutions in the north would have.

SETTLING DIFFERENCES

But Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic now says they are in his words "never closer" to settling their differences.

Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told reporters earlier they were at what he called "the beginning of the end" in reaching an accord to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

The two men spoke after separate talks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Belgrade and Pristina.

Ashton said later she believes the agreement could be reached in Brussels as early as March 20. "I pay great respect to the two prime ministers, Hashim Thaci [of Kosovo] and Ivica Dacic (of Serbia). They have met six times and will meet on Wednesday," she said.

AGREEMENT "POSSIBLE"

"I have been to Pristina and to Belgrade...I think it is possible for them to reach an agreement. Whether they will or not will depend on whether we can find a way through some of the difficult problems they have," Ashton added.

However, "I've met with members of the government and in Pristina I [also] met with the opposition parties," she explained. "I think there is a genuine willingness to achieve this [agreement]. And I do my very best to see if we can," the optimistic top diplomat said.

Progress on the issue will decide whether the EU opens accession talks with Serbia in June, a process that would drive reform and potentially lure investors to the biggest economy in what was Yugoslavia.

Majority ethnic-Albanian Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

That move came almost a decade after NATO military alliance bombs forced Serb forces to end their crackdown, on independence seeking ethnic Albanians.

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