By Fatos Bytyci and Aleksandar Vasovic
PRISTINA/BELGRADE (Reuters) - Kosovo's president said on Tuesday that Serbia has agreed to disband a security operation in the north of its former province that Belgrade - racing to clinch EU accession talks - denies exists.
Serbia said no such deal had been done and has denied Western accusations for years that it maintains clandestine security forces in a northern, Serb pocket of neighboring Kosovo, the majority-Albanian territory that broke away in a 1998-99 war and declared independence in 2008.
Western diplomats say the Serb police and intelligence officers' presence is an open secret, and the EU wants them off the Serbian payroll before it moves ahead with the Balkan country's bid to join the bloc.
Kosovo's president, Atifete Jahjaga, said she had been informed by Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci that Serbia had agreed "in principle" at EU-mediated talks this month to dismantle the security operation.
"The prime minister said it was agreed that Serbia's intelligence and police structures in Kosovo will be disbanded," she said in a statement, also stating that the deal would be finalized at the next round of EU-mediated talks expected next week in Brussels.
Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo as independent, said no agreement had been reached during the talks and again denied having any Serb security forces in northern Kosovo, a region centered on the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica.
"As far as alleged intelligence and police structures are concerned, someone would have to name them," Aleksandar Vulin, the Serbian government's spokesman on Kosovo, told Reuters. Whoever suggests Serbia has such forces in Kosovo "has a problem with reality", he said.
Serbia's 7-month-old government has signaled it is ready to make concessions on Kosovo in exchange for accession negotiations with the EU, and has already agreed to joint management of their border and to recognize a number of official Kosovo documents - a step towards recognizing it as a state.
The EU is expected to decide in June whether to open accession negotiations with Serbia, a milestone for the country in its recovery from a decade of war and isolation under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Mired in renewed recession, the government hopes the step will send a message of stability to much-needed foreign investors.
Serbia lost control over its former province in 1999 when NATO bombed the territory to drive out Serb forces and halt a brutal counter-insurgency.
Kosovo has been recognized as independent by more than 90 countries, including the United States and 22 of the EU's 27 members, but tensions in the Serb north have thwarted plans by NATO to reduce its 6,000-strong peacekeeping force there.
(Additional reporting by Branislav Krstic in Mitrovica; Editing by Louise Ireland and Matt Robinson)