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World News

EU eyes signing interim pact with Serbia

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is considering signing an interim pact on trade and cooperation with Serbia before a February 3 presidential election to try to boost the pro-European incumbent, diplomats said on Friday.

The interim agreement would normally enter into force only when the EU signs a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Belgrade and pending its ratification, but the Netherlands and Belgium have so far blocked that signature to demand the arrest of a key fugitive war crimes suspect.

“The idea is that the European Commission could be given the green light by foreign ministers next Monday to sign the interim agreement to give the Serbs some positive gesture,” a senior EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

However, even that move would require unanimous agreement of the 27 EU member states, and as of Friday, the Dutch had not decided to give the go-ahead despite intense lobbying from other capitals, another diplomat said.

Incumbent pro-Western President Boris Tadic faces a tough battle to defeat nationalist Radical challenger Tomislav Nikolic in a runoff after the pro-Russian hardliner took a five-point lead in last Sunday’s first round.

Although the presidency has little power, EU leaders are keen to see Tadic win a symbolic victory to bolster pro-European forces on the eve of a turbulent period in Serbia over an expected declaration of independence by Kosovo.

The EU has for months being preparing plans to take over policing and civil administration duties from the United Nations once Kosovo’s status had been settled. But, again in a bid not to upset Tadic’s chances, it is not expected to begin deployment on the ground until after the election.

“That will not be something for Monday,” said a diplomat involved in preparations for the foreign ministers meeting.

NATO ASSURANCES

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, long a stickler for cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal, raised pressure on the Dutch on Thursday by calling publicly for the EU to sign the SAA agreement next week.

Up to now, Brussels has insisted Belgrade must cooperate fully with the Hague tribunal, as certified by its chief prosecutor, before it will sign the pact, initialled last year.

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen has said that means former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, charged with genocide for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims, must be arrested and put on a plane to the Hague.

Deliberations over the timing of the SAA are just one part of the fastidious diplomacy being conducted by EU and the United States in the hope that Kosovo’s expected declaration of independence does not spark fresh unrest in the Balkans.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said after meeting EU officials in Brussels on Thursday he was confident he had the backing of European and U.S. allies to make the move within days, but he steered clear of naming a date.

A NATO spokesman said there was no specific discussion of a date in talks between Thaci and Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Friday, in which de the NATO chief stressed the alliance’s readiness to keep its 17,000 peacekeepers there.

“Prime Minister Thaci for his part gave assurances that he took the interests and the security of minorities to heart,” he said, referring to the Serb minority whose protection will be the main task of the NATO KFOR force.

Additional reporting by Mark John; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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