By Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Serbia's launch of membership talks with the European Union will not spell the end of EU-mediated talks with its former province Kosovo on mending their relations, the EU's top diplomat said on Thursday.
The EU's 28 governments rewarded Belgrade this week for improving ties with Pristina by agreeing to start membership talks on January 21, putting Serbia on a path towards joining the EU possibly in the next decade.
The decision marks a remarkable transformation for the ex-Yugoslav state from being a pariah of the region for its role in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and follows a landmark cooperation deal with Kosovo in April.
Leaders of Serbia and Kosovo, which seceded in 2008, will meet again in Brussels in January after some 20 rounds of talks in the last two years to decide what else they want to try to resolve in terms of practical cooperation.
"What has been absolutely clear is that they have said very openly that they want to carry on this process. And we have to help them be as ambitious to resolve the problems as they want to be," the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.
Ashton, who has mediated talks between the two foes, said Serbia and Kosovo will also work in the coming months on implementing the April accord, a key issue watched by EU governments.
"We will have to keep checking and going back on implementation for two reasons," she told reporters. "One is to make sure it really does happen. And secondly to check the things that may have not (been) thought about."
The EU has kept Serbia waiting since April before agreeing on a date to start accession talks to ensure the cooperation was progressing.
It has also agreed to start talks with Kosovo on closer ties, although five out of the EU's 28 countries do not recognize it as independent, alongside Serbia.
The accord ran into difficulties last month when an election in Kosovo sparked ethnic violence.
The 40,000-50,000 Serbs living in north Kosovo - a Serb enclave - remain suspicious of the deal. In October, Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic threatened to pull out of the EU-mediated talks after Kosovo denied him permission to visit the northern region.
Still, the cooperation accord marked a thaw between Serbia and Kosovo. It was struck some 14 years after NATO waged an air war to drive Serbian forces out of the area in 1999 to stop ethnic cleaning of the majority Albanians living in Kosovo, after negotiations failed to halt a conflict that was destabilizing the western Balkans.
Under the April deal, the northern Serb pocket was slated to take part in a Kosovo municipal election on November 3.
"I have enormous respect and admiration for both prime ministers for their willingness to engage in this and work through important and difficult issues, both being respectful of their own red lines but very aware of each other's red lines," Ashton said of Dacic and his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci.
(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Rosalind Russell)