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Serbia pressed to help stop north Kosovo border unrest

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(BRUSSELS) - Serbia came under sharp pressure Thursday to help end unrest on its tense border with north Kosovo as the clock ticked on Belgrade's bid to win a seat at the European Union table.

Negotiators from both sides went into a second day of EU-brokered talks mulling an EU proposal on management of the contested border, while also seeking agreement on a range of problems caused by Serbia's refusal to recognise Kosovo's 2008 independence.

Fresh violence at border crossings in recent days has left scores injured, including NATO peacekeepers, while threatening to scuttle the fledgling Serbia-Kosovo talks as well as Serbia's dreams of EU membership.

Heading a meeting of EU foreign ministers, the bloc's external relations chief Catherine Ashton credited apparent progress in the talks that began in March -- the first contact between the two sides -- but pressed Belgrade to do more, including the removal of barricades thrown up by members of northern Kosovo's majority ethnic Serbs.

Belgrade needed to exercise "the maximum pressure on those who perpetrate violence to make sure the barricades are removed", Ashton said.

In Belgrade, the government issued the country's second plea in a week to Kosovo Serbs to dismantle barricades and avoid confrontation.

"The government of Serbia considers the removal of barricades in the north of the province important for the stabilisation of life in northern Kosovo," it said in a statement.

As talks continued in Brussels, Ashton said "the more that both sides talk to each other and work through some of these difficult issues, the greater the chance of finding a good peaceful solution."

Some 50 soldiers from the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, including Austrians and Germans, were hurt when trying to dismantle the barricades.

Protesters refuse to recognise border guards and customs officials sent by the ethnic Albanian government in Pristina.

As concern over the situation mounts, NATO's decision-making body, the 28-nation North Atlantic Council, urged "all parties to exercise restraint and cooperate fully with all international actors".

NATO allies and KFOR partners also called on Belgrade and Pristina to continue their EU-facilitated dialogue.

Diplomats told AFP the two sides had been discussing an EU proposal for "integrated border management", where crossings would be placed under the joint management of Serbia and Kosovo, with members of the European rule of law mission EULEX -- combining officials and police -- overseeing the posts.

The talks aim to end problems caused by Kosovo's breakaway, such as Pristina's lack of land records and civil registries, and the cutting of telecommunications and transport links.

A week ago in Brussels, both sides agreed to recognise each others' university diplomas.

Officials hoped the latest talks might dish up an accord enabling Kosovo to take a seat at regional Balkans bodies involved in issues from trade to migration to transport -- a status close to de facto recognition of Pristina.

The outcome of the latest talks will likely determine if officials give their blessing to Serbia becoming a candidate for EU membership.

Once regarded as a shoo-in for EU candidacy after the arrest of longtime wanted war criminals Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic earlier this year, the border flare-up has dimmed Belgrade's chances somewhat.

While Germany and Austria appear hesitant, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said after Thursday's ministerial talks that Paris favoured granting Serbia candidate status.

"We reiterated our backing to grant Serbia the status of EU candidate country," said his Spanish counterpart Trinidad Jimenez.

And EU diplomats close to the talks told AFP that foreign ministers by and large believe Serbia has made "great progress" in reforms and in cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia.

"I don't think one can exclude Serbia getting the go-ahead, even Germany hasn't closed the door," a diplomat said. "The jury's not out yet."

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