Serbia and Kosovo leaders break off talks without result despite EU push for improved relations

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BRUSSELS (AP) — The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo broke off talks on Thursday without signaling progress after European Union leaders weighed in to help them bridge their differences and start enacting an agreement they endorsed several months ago.

Shortly after a series of meetings in Brussels ended on Thursday evening – some involving the leaders of France, Germany and Italy – Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic began trading blame for the lack of progress, much as they have done for months.

The two men deeply distrust each other. Kurti said that Vucic had refused to sign their February agreement aimed at normalizing their bitter relations as well as an action plan for making the deal work.

“Acceptance entails a signature; only a signature entails acceptance and guarantees implementation,” Kurti said in a statement.

Vucic dismissed that claim as “tricks,” saying “there was no question of signing or not signing.”

“Someone is playing games to shift the blame on the other side,” he said.

EXPLAINER: What is behind renewed tensions between Serbia and Kosovo?

The meetings in Brussels come on the sidelines of an EU summit. Fears are high of a resumption of the violence that has marked their relations since Kosovo unilaterally broke away from Serbia in 2008. Belgrade still considers Kosovo a Serbian province and has never recognized its independence.

Both Kosovo and Serbia want to join the EU, but they’ve been warned that they must sort out their differences first.

The Europeans have been spurred into action by a major gun battle on Sept. 24, when about 30 Serb gunmen crossed into northern Kosovo, killed a police officer and set up barricades. Three gunmen were killed in the shootout with Kosovo police.

Kurti said that those who carried out the attack, notably their leader Milan Radoicic, had fled back into Serbia and should be extradited to Kosovo for trial. He said the trial would be fair, because the EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo could monitor it.

Radoicic was briefly detained, questioned and released in Serbia earlier this month.

Thursday’s talks were chiefly aimed at putting into action the agreement that Vucic and Kurti reached in February, although the two have raised issues with it. The idea was to work in new “proposals and ideas” floated in exploratory talks last weekend.

The big problem is that neither Vucic nor Kurti wants to be the first to make concessions without guarantees that the other will reciprocate.

The EU and U.S. are pressing Kosovo to allow the creation of an Association of the Serb-Majority Municipalities to coordinate work on education, health care, land planning and economic development in communities of northern Kosovo mostly populated by ethnic Serbs.

Kurti fears such an association would be a step toward creating a Serb mini-state with wide autonomy.

Vucic reiterated Thursday that Kurti is to blame, saying “it is completely clear who does not want to form the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.”

The last thing the Europeans want is more conflict in their backyard. The war between Serbia and Kosovo in 1998-99 left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovo Albanians.

Even with both countries’ membership hopes in doubt over the deadlock, Kurti said that Kosovo deserves to be officially granted candidate status for joining the EU due to “its democratic and economic progress.

Jovana Gec in Belgrade and Llazar Semini in Tirana contributed to this report.

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