EU backs away from quick Serb membership

( AP ) - European Union leaders backed away Friday from offering Serbia a fast-track to membership and again cautioned Belgrade that its future entry hinges on full cooperation in handing over war crime suspects for trial.

Emerging from a one-day summit, the 27 EU leaders also resisted endorsing quick independence for Kosovo, the restive southern Serb province where most people are ethnic Albanians.

There had been speculation the EU might offer Serbia faster entry to cushion the blow of possibly losing Kosovo. But the leaders chose their words carefully, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking of the need to "send a positive signal to Serbia."The summit ended with participants saying a declaration of Kosovo independence would be premature. If anything, even more cracks appeared as Romania and Slovakia joined Cyprus - previously the lone voice of opposition in the EU - in firmly opposing fast independence.

EU leaders agreed to try to coordinate a phased-in recognition of Kosovo's independence and also left the door open for a negotiated settlement between Serbia and ethnic Albanian leaders.

"The answer is no" on immediate recognition of Kosovo independence, said Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, who presided at the summit. "What we do now is undertake negotiations in the United Nations Security Council."

Leaders agreed to send a 1,800-strong police and security mission to Kosovo to replace the current United Nations administrative mission.

"This is a European matter. Europe has agreed in principle to send a civil force," Sarkozy said.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica reacted angrily to the summit's conclusions.

"It is unacceptable to talk about the Serbian province of Kosovo as a future legal and democratic state," he said in a statement. "It is unacceptable to talk about an unlawful arrival of the EU mission to the province."

Kosovo's prime minister-elect, Hashim Thaci, called the EU mission the "right decision, at the right time" and said it paved the way for a declaration of independence.

But he added that Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership would not act without the backing of the U.S. and EU. "The declaration of independence of Kosovo will be in coordination with our Western partners," he said.

Sarkozy said Serbia could join the EU only if it lived up to international demands to hand over war crime suspects and respected Kosovo independence.

The EU wants Serbia to hand over several fugitives, including the former Bosnian Serb military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic. He was indicted on genocide-related charges by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and is said to be in hiding in Serbia.

Memories of deep divisions over the Balkan wars in the 1990s, which led to the EU's inability to prevent the fighting, still haunt EU capitals.

The EU leaders' debate on Kosovo came before a key U.N. Security Council meeting Wednesday on the province's status.

Ethnic Albanians, who comprise 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people, insist on independence. Serbia, backed by Russia, says the province must remain Serbian territory.

Ethnic Albanians expect swift recognition of independence from the EU and others. Ethnic Serbs have threatened to leave the province or to group in Kosovo's north, where most of them live, and call for the territory to unite with Serbia.

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