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Kosovo's president lashes out at Macron for saying France may review visa-free travel for Kosovars

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo’s president on Wednesday lashed out at France’s Emmanuel Macron for saying this week that Paris may review visa-free EU travel rules in 2024 for Kosovo and Serbia over their stalled talks on normalizing ties.

President Vjosa Osmani said any suspension of visa-free travel to the European Union for her country’s citizens next year would “kill the dialogue once and for all” with Serbia.

EU lawmakers in April gave the green light for citizens from Kosovo to travel without visas for up to 90 days in six months in Europe’s 27-nation Schengen passport-free area, starting next year. Kosovo was the last country in the Western Balkans not to have such travel arrangements with the EU.

On Monday, Macron warned that visa-free travel for both Serbia and Kosovo may be “reviewed if both parties do not behave responsibly.”

"We must be very careful in this regard, especially when the stability of the Western Balkans is at risk,” Macron said.

"That would be the most efficient method to kill the dialogue once and for all,” Osmani told journalists. “Such measures ... are against the people."

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti ’s policies in the country's north strained relations with the Western powers after police-backed ethnic Albanian mayors took office following an election that the ethnic Serb majority in the area had widely boycotted.

The United States and the European Union pressured Kurti to help calm the situation after violence broke out in May, with dozens of people injured in clashes between local Serbs and Kosovo police and NATO-led peacekeepers, fueling fears of a conflict similar to the 1998-99 one that killed more than 10,000 people.

Kosovo is a former province in Serbia whose 2008 declaration of independence Belgrade does not recognize. Most ethnic Serbs in Kosovo also have refused to acknowledge Kosovo’s statehood, which is backed by the U.S. and most EU nations but not Russia and China.

Serbia pulled out of Kosovo in 1999 after NATO bombed the country to stop the onslaught against ethnic Albanian separatists.

Kosovo and Serbia aspire to join the EU but Brussels has made it clear to both countries that they should solve their dispute through a mediated dialogue in order to join the bloc.

After the spring turmoil in Kosovo's north, Brussels imposed some punishing measures — though it stopped short of calling them sanctions — on Kosovo, suspending funding of some projects and halting visits of top diplomats.

Osmani said Kosovo has fulfilled all of Brussels’ recent requests on holding new elections in the north and gradually reducing the presence of special police there, adding that she expects the EU will notice this and lift the imposed measures, "which were unfair and disproportionate.”

Osmani spoke in the capital of Pristina after a memorial for hundreds who have disappeared during Kosovo's war.

Also Wednesday, senior EU diplomats called on Serbia and Kosovo to make “tangible progress in determining the fate of the 1,616 missing persons who are still unaccounted for in Kosovo.”

EU's envoy Miroslav Lajcak said that following Kurti's meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in May, when they endorsed a joint declaration on missing persons, “a lot of work needs to be done” by both sides to fulfill their commitments and "strengthen cooperation in identifying burial sites and executing excavations.”

Western officials fear further instability in Europe as the war continues in Ukraine. NATO has sent additional troops to its peacekeeping mission in Kosovo to boost security.

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Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.