Serbia and Kosovo have launched their direct talks

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Tirana March 9, 2011 NOA – Serbia and Kosovo have launched their first direct talks since Kosovo's declaration of independence three years ago, voicing high hopes amid European Union and United States encouragement.

A first round of talks, lasting about two hours on Tuesday and to be followed up last night, were ''constructive, friendly and frank'', an EU source said.

Kosovo's deputy prime minister, Edita Tahiri, said: ''We come with a positive spirit and constructive approach. With creativity we think we may overcome the differences and it may improve the lives of people but also advance the European agenda for both states.''

The EU-brokered talks will touch upon issues complicating everyday life: trade, border crossings, identity papers and mobile phone networks.

Facilitator to the talks, which if successful will take place at regular intervals, is Robert Cooper, special adviser to the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.

''Solving problems by dialogue is the European way,'' Ms Ashton said. ''The objectives of the talks are to promote co-operation and bring both Pristina and Belgrade closer to the EU.''

The larger historical picture of sovereignty, mutual recognition or official apologies will remain off the table, EU sources said. ''We hope to start with easy issues and in the future they can break ground,'' said an EU diplomat.

Last year the International Court of Justice ruled that Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence was not a violation of international law. Serbia still claims the largely ethnic Albanian Kosovo as its province.

''This day was not inevitable,'' said the US senator John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee. ''Officials from both governments deserve credit for helping their people secure a more prosperous future.''

''Even small steps will take the region forward,'' said the Swedish Foreign Minister and Balkans expert Carl Bildt.

Negotiators will seek to resolve practical issues such as train connections being idle since 1999 and Serbian airspace banned for travel to Kosovo.

Kosovars heading to Europe, for example, must detour through Albania and Montenegro because their passports are invalid in Serbia. But to get a Serbian passport they need birth certificates obtainable only in Serbia - to which they cannot travel with documents issued in Pristina.

Both sides hope to inch closer to Europe, with Serbia clearing a crucial hurdle last year in its bid to join the EU as a reward for its softened stance on Kosovo.

For Pristina, whose leadership has been linked by a Council of Europe report to harvesting organs in the late 1990s from former Serbian prisoners, participation can help rehabilitate the image of the newly re-elected Kosovo Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci. ''This is an opportunity for a historic reconciliation between Serbs and [Kosovo] Albanians and neither Belgrade nor Pristina should pass it up,'' said Goran Bogdanovic, Serbia's minister for Kosovo.

Kosovo declared independence after nearly a decade under UN administration following the ouster of Serbian troops loyal to Slobodan Milosevic after the 1998-99 war.