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Europe

Serbia, Kosovo implement joint border controls

Serbia and Kosovo have opened jointly supervised border crossings. This is seen as a step towards normalizing relations - something the two sides need to do if they are to achieve their aspirations of entering the EU.

The openings of the jointly operated crossing points at Jarinje and Medarje between northern Kosovo and Serbia came off without a hitch on Monday.

The Jarinje facility was still under construction as it opened, after protests by Kosovo Serbs prevented work from going ahead at the site for several days.

Though ethnic Albanians form the overall majority in Kosovo, Serbs dominate in the north of the country.

Under an agreement brokered by EU officials in talks in Brussels last week, police and customs agents from both countries are to check people and goods crossing the frontier between Serbia and its former province. Jarinje and Medarje are two of six border crossings where joint supervision is to be implemented by the end of this year.

An 'extraordinary step'

After learning of the successful openings of the two crossing points, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had words of praise for both sides.

"I believe that what we have seen from Serbia and Kosovo is an extraordinary step forward," Westerwelle said on the fringes of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels. "We can only encourage all of those involved to continue along this path."

Just who should be in charge of the border crossings has been a major bone of contention since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

An attempt by authorities in Pristina to take control of the Kosovo side of the crossings in July of last year sparked a series of violent clashes with ethnic Serbs.

Serbia, which was granted EU-candidate status last March, has been taking steps to normalize day-to-day relations with Kosovo as part of its efforts to persuade the 27-member bloc to open accession talks. The issue is on Tuesday's agenda for the EU foreign ministers' meeting.

For Kosovo, EU membership is a longer-term goal. The European Commission has said it wants to proceed with a stabilization and association agreement, but the fact that five of the bloc's members have not recognized Kosovo is seen as a major stumbling block.

Since it declared independence, Kosovo has been recognized by 96 countries, including 22 EU members and the United States. Serbia says it will never recognized its former province as an independent state.

pfd/sej (dpa, AFP, AP)