US envoy in Kosovo to push for lifting of tax on Serbia

FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2019 file photo, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale delivers a statement after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, in Beirut, Lebanon. Hale was in Kosovo on Saturday, March 9, 2019, to meet with the country's leaders in an attempt to persuade Pristina to revoke or suspend a tariff on Serb goods so that dialogue with Serbia can resume. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

PRISTINA, Kosovo — A senior U.S. official on Saturday met with top Kosovo leaders in an attempt to persuade the government to revoke or suspend a tariff on Serb goods so that dialogue with Belgrade can resume.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale is the latest U.S. envoy to take part in shuttle diplomacy between Kosovo and Serbia. He met with Kosovo's president, speaker and prime minister at the residence of the U.S. ambassador. A day earlier, he was in Belgrade.

In an interview with three local newspapers, Hale urged both Belgrade and Pristina to move ahead with the dialogue and reach an agreement, acceptable to both countries.

He said Washington had no specific stance, but stressed that U.S. and Western powers would support any deal reached between the two countries.

Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has resisted U.S. calls to suspend the tariff, saying it will only be lifted when Belgrade recognizes Kosovo's sovereignty and stops preventing it from joining international organizations. Serbia doesn't recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.

Haradinaj posted a reaction in his Facebook page inviting Serbia to return to the negotiating table and "discuss all open issues, including free trade, and achieve an agreement that will end with the recognition of the existing borders."

Serbia says it won't take part in the European Union-facilitated discussions until the 100-percent tax is lifted.

Since 2011, the two former war foes have been in an EU-facilitated dialogue, aiming at resolving the long-standing Balkan dispute. Brussels has told both countries they must normalize their ties before they can hope to join the bloc.

Earlier this week, Kosovo's Parliament adopted a negotiating platform for the talks that involves mutual recognition and keeping the current borders intact.

Belgrade responded that this was a rigid platform that dashes all hopes for a compromise solution.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said Saturday that Belgrade shouldn't condition the dialogue, which should be "comprehensive and transparent."

Thaci said the leaders told Hale that "the status quo and the situation of a frozen conflict are inadmissible."

"All show they are strong but now it is time to see they are smart in achieving their goals," Hale said, according to the Koha Ditore newspaper website.

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