By RON DePASQUALEAssociated Press
UNITED NATIONS (AP) - Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said Kosovo and Serbia must normalize relations soon to begin integrating with Europe, but he insisted that partition of his country's Serb-dominated northern enclave "will never happen."
Kosovo's flag does not fly at the United Nations, where Thaci met with EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and U.S. officials on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly ministerial meeting.
The European Union is trying to broker talks next month between Kosovo and Serbia, which also wants to join the bloc. The EU is expected to push for a resolution on Kosovo's tense north, where the young country has little control over ethnic Serbs who suffered reprisal attacks after the province broke away from Serbia and reject the authority of the ethnic Albanian-dominated government in Pristina.
"Kosovo is determined for dialogue with Serbia, for normalization of relations," Thaci said in an interview Friday with The Associated Press. "Kosovo will benefit, Serbia will benefit. It will mean an end to the era of conflicts in the region and a faster process of integration of all countries."
The nation of about 2 million people, predominantly ethnic Albanians of Muslim faith, belongs to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but cannot have its own telephone prefix because it does not belong to the United Nations. The International Olympic Committee rejected its bid to participate in this summer's London Olympics, but FIFA has ruled that its members can play soccer matches against Kosovo.
Over 90 countries have recognized Kosovo's independence, including much of Europe, and the number will soon top 100, Thaci said.
Serbia insists it will never recognize Kosovo, which it views as a national heartland, but the EU wants Belgrade to normalize ties with Pristina as a precondition for EU membership.
Thaci and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic did not meet at the United Nations, though they both attended a reception for European leaders, where the newly-elected Serbian nationalist left without speaking to his counterpart.
Despite the snub, Thaci said he was eager for negotiations with Serbia.
"We need to start," he said. "The more delays we face, the more difficult this process will become. Therefore both Kosovo and Serbia should fight to catch up, in order to have a faster integration process."
Kosovo will soon find out if it is on the right track toward integration. The EU is slated to release a report Oct. 10 on Kosovo's progress on preparing for a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step in the long path to membership.
Earlier this month, in a sign of confidence that Kosovo has matured since its unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, a 25-nation group made up of the U.S., Turkey and EU countries formally ended supervision of the fragile state, which it had guided since the end of its bloody war with Serbia.
A massive international presence remains, however. About, 5,600 NATO-led peacekeepers are still in charge of security and a 3,000-strong EU mission has the final say in legal matters. Corruption, organized crime, smuggling and high unemployment remain huge problems.
"We have worked very hard, but I am aware that we need to do more," Thaci said. "We are now seen by the world as a normal functioning country."
The world, however, has not allowed Kosovo into the United Nations. The Kosovars were on the outside looking in as Vuk Jeremic, the former Serbian foreign minister and new president of the General Assembly, presided over the U.N.'s annual gathering of world leaders.
Kosovo's membership at the U.N. has been blocked by an ally of Serbia: Russia, a veto power-wielding member of the Security Council, which must approve any new members.
"After normalization of relations with Serbia the path to the U.N. will be opened," Thaci said.
There has been some progress. Kosovo citizens can now travel to Serbia with their own ID card, but not with Kosovo car plates. Serbia has agreed to accept Kosovo university diplomas, and will participate at regional meetings alongside Kosovo as long as there is an asterisk on Kosovo's name that refers to its international status.
The fate of Kosovo's Orthodox Christian Serbs and the firm grip that Serbia has on northern Kosovo are the main sticking points. Some Serbian officials have said that partition is the best solution, but Thaci said that redrawing any borders would set a dangerous precedent for the Balkans.
He said Serbs in northern Kosovo must integrate into Kosovar society, but that task has been made more difficult because they "have been deceived now for 12 years by Belgrade that there will be partition. That will never happen. Partition implies changing the borders for a minimum six countries."
Another source of division is a 2010 Council of Europe report by Swiss politician Dick Marty that alleges the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, including Thaci, killed Serbian civilian captives during the 1990s and sold their organs. Albania and Kosovo have repeatedly denied the claims.
Earlier this month, a Serbian prosecutor said that a witness came forward and testified "in detail" about the allegations, which the European Union is now investigating.
Thaci dismissed the claims as "science fiction," though he acknowledged "they have harmed my image, and the image of Kosovo."
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