Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 17:46 UK

Serbia and EU sign pact on ties

Serbian Deputy PM Bozidar Gelic, Serbian President Boris Tadic, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel
The signing came after a compromise thrashed out by EU ministers

The European Union has signed an agreement with Serbia that will pave the way for membership of the bloc.

Serbian President Boris Tadic attended the ceremony which was carried live by most TV stations in Serbia.

The accord went ahead after objections from Belgium and the Netherlands were overcome over Belgrade's failure to hand over war crimes suspects.

After the signing Mr Tadic said Serbia "would like to become an official candidate by the end of the year".

Under a compromise agreed by ministers from the EU's 27 member states, the pact known as a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) will not be ratified nor its benefits become available to Serbia until it fully co-operates with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

I'd like to say something to the younger generation of Serbians: here is your house, here is your place
Javier Solana
EU foreign policy chief

The SAA not only places Belgrade firmly on the path to candidacy but, when ratified, will grant Serbs closer trade relations and more relaxed visa requirements.

EU ministers were keen to send Serbia a positive message before May elections.

Nationalist parties are ahead in the opinion polls, following Kosovo's declaration of independence and its recognition by a majority of EU member states.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana described the signing as a "very important day" for Serbia and Europe.

"I'd like to say something to the younger generation of Serbians: here is your house, here is your place," he said.

Gesture to Serbs that their future lies in Europe
Signing of deal acceptable if followed by immediate suspension
No advantages for Serbia until full co-operation with Hague Tribunal

But the Netherlands and Belgium insist that, before the SAA is ratified, Serbia should hand over two war crimes suspects wanted in connection with the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica: Bosnian Serb ex-army leader Ratko Mladic and war-time political leader Radovan Karadzic.

War crimes prosecutor for the former Yugoslavia, Serge Brammertz, praised the EU stance.

In a statement, Mr Brammertz said he appreciated the EU's decision to make the terms of the SAA conditional on full co-operation from Belgrade.

"The OTP (Office of the Prosecutor) continues to rely on the crucial support of the international community to finally bring the remaining fugitives to justice," the statement said.

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