Major irritant defused ahead of EU-Russia summit

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The European Commission reached agreement with the Russian government yesterday (14 December) on ensuring passage of a humanitarian convoy from Russia to Kosovo's Serbs, defusing what could have become a major irritant at the ongoing EU-Russia summit.

"The EU is in touch with all involved sides with a view to making the agreement a reality," Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, was quoted as saying by BETA, the EURACTIV partner agency in Serbia.

Kocijancic also voiced hope that everyone would cooperate so the deal could be put into effect quickly.

The convoy of around 300 tonnes of humanitarian aid from Russia destined for Kosovo's Serbs has been stopped at the Jarinje administrative line crossing since 13 December. Only two of the 27 trucks were allowed to pass a customs checkpoint at the border crossing between Serbia and northern Kosovo.

Following the consecutive attacks by Priština authorities and Kosovo Serb forces on border crossing points (see background), Serbia lost control over the Jarinje and Brnjak checkpoints.

Both crossings are overseen by the EU's Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, or EULEX, NATO'sKFOR operation and a Kosovo customs officer.

An EULEX spokesperson said Tuesday that the convoy "had two choices", namely to accept an EULEX police escort or to go to the Kosovo-controlled checkpoint of Merdare.

The Russians had rejected both options, saying that they did not require an escort and would not travel to a checkpoint controlled by Priština authorities.

Russia's ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Konuzin, was quoted as saying that EULEX was "politicising the issue". He also said that it would be "a priority topic" in the EU-Russia summit taking place in Brussels.

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced late on 14 December that it was working on ensuring passage for the convoy, accusing EULEX of stepping outside its neutral mandate and creating obstacles by inventing various reasons to block entry of the cargo.

The situation in Kosovo is expected to be discussed at the summit, which started last night (15 December) in Brussels, with the participation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Ashton.

Under the mediation of Catherine Ashton's European External Action Service (EEAS), negotiations have been started between Belgrade and Priština aimed at making the daily lives of people on both sides easier. A first small, but symbolically important agreement was reached on 2 July.

But since then there has been little progress. Tensions grew at the border between Serbia and the Serbian-populated north of Kosovo, which is largely a no-man's land. In July, Priština unilaterally declared a ban on Serbian imports, also preventing travellers from crossing the border.

Serbian officials strongly attacked the blockade, calling it yet another violation of the EU-backed Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), of which both Serbia and Kosovo are singatories.

From the outset, the EU deplored the Kosovo-imposed embargo, stressing that unilateral action would not solve problems.

On 27 July masked Kosovo Serbs attacked and burned down a border post at the Serbia-Kosovo border and fired at members of NATO's KFOR peacekeeping force.

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