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EU's Solana encourages Serbia to maintain good relations with independent

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro-EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana encouraged top Serbian officials Friday to establish good relations with Montenegro in the aftermath of the tiny Adriatic republic's split from the Serbia-Montenegro union.

Solana also pressed Belgrade to cooperate with the U.N. war crimes tribunal based in The Hague, Netherlands, and promised there would be a place in Europe for both Serbia and Montenegro as two independent, sovereign states.

During a visit to the Serbian capital, Solana first met with President Boris Tadic, congratulating him on "the level of statesmanship everyone has admired" in the prompt way Tadic recognized Montenegro's independence after the May 21 referendum in the smaller republic.

Solana was later to meet with Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to discuss the aftermath of the Montenegrin secession.

"There will be many political and technical issues to resolve" as the two Balkan republics part ways," Solana said, cautioning the separation must be "constructive" and smooth. "To do it in a manner of dialogue is better for everybody."

Kostunica openly backed the anti-independence bloc in Montenegro and criticized the EU's handling of the vote, only tacitly recognizing that Serbia now stands alone and stopping short of explicit recognition or offering congratulations for Montenegrin independence.

EU and international observers have said Montenegro's vote was free and fair.

Serbia-Montenegro was the last union among republics of the former Yugoslavia after the federation collapsed in a series of wars in the 1990s. But the union dissolved after 55.5 percent of Montenegrins who voted in the referendum in the republic of 620,000 people chose independence.

Serbia and Montenegro have been negotiating a pre-membership deal on economic and political ties with the European Union on parallel tracks since 2004. The deal, called the "stability and association agreement," is considered a first step toward EU membership.

Each republic will now continue pursuing aspirations to join the bloc separately. Montenegrin leaders have not set a target date for EU membership but claim that without Serbia, the smaller republic stands a better chance.

In May, the EU froze talks with Serbia after it failed to deliver top war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic to the U.N. tribunal.

"Serbia is a European country, with a European perspective," Solana said. "There is a place for you in Europe."

But the "difficult problem" of arresting and extraditing Mladic stands in the way of Serbia's path to Europe, Solana said. "The sooner this issue is resolved, the better for everybody."

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