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Serbia-Kosovo land swap ‘could settle dispute once and for all’

There are fears that such a move could also reignite tensions between the two former foes.

The idea of a “land swap” between Serbia and Kosovo to settle their long-running dispute once and for all has stirred passions ahead of a new round of talks between the former foes.

The idea would likely see a part of southern Serbia centred on the ethnic Albanian-dominated city of Presevo transferred to Kosovo, while the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo, around Mitrovica, would become part of Serbia.

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo leader Hashim Thaci are expected to meet in Brussels as part of efforts to normalise relations in the region still riven by tensions from the 1998-99 war.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized as a nation by more than 100 countries. However, Serbia does not recognise it, and neither do five EU countries: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.

Serbia and Kosovo have been told that they must sort out their differences if they want to advance toward EU membership.

Officials from both nations have suggested a land swap could be a good idea, but there is opposition both inside the countries and internationally.

There are concerns that changes to the borders could trigger similar demands in Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, nations which were also formed after the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

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The ethnic Albanian-dominated region in southern Serbia of Presevo (AP)

Germany and some of its EU partners also have voiced fears this could open up old wounds in the Balkans rather than resolving their longstanding differences.

US president Donald Trump’s administration has signalled it would accept any agreement between the two sides.

Although there are no fixed proposals on the table, the most commonly mentioned ideas always involve the so-called Presevo Valley area of Serbia, to be swapped for Kosovo’s Serb-populated north.

Zoran Ostojic, an analyst from Belgrade, believes that the meeting in Brussels will not result in an immediate breakthrough despite heightened expectations.

Serbia’s Mr Vucic and Kosovo’s Mr Thaci are “testing the ground, primarily with the international community” by floating the idea, he said.

“Who knows where that could end?” Ostojic warned, echoing fears of a chain reaction throughout Balkans.

The 1998-99 war erupted when Kosovo separatists launched a rebellion to split from Serbia after Belgrade had stripped the region of its self-rule. More than 10,000 people died in the conflict before Nato forced Serbia to pull out of the territory.

EU officials are hoping that the prospects of membership in the bloc will encourage the Balkan nations to leave the past behind – but when it comes to Serbia and Kosovo, there is a long way to go.

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