BELGRADE, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Serbia got a double dose of good news on Thursday as the European Union started its journey to eventual EU membership and the United Nations war crimes court gave it a rare public pat on the back.
U.N. tribunal chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte, flanked by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, told reporters she was happy Serbia was finally cooperating with The Hague, a key element in its bid for eventual European Union membership.
"We are very pleased with the cooperation we received from Belgrade," del Ponte said. "Finally we can say we have a reciprocal cooperation between The Hague and Belgrade."
An hour earlier in Brussels, EU ambassadors backed opening talks on a so-called Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the fragile union of Serbia and Montenegro that was salvaged from the wreck of former Yugoslavia.
Del Ponte's past, negative assessments of Serbia's record of cooperation with the Hague tribunal had been central to the EU's decisions on its relations with Belgrade.
But Thursday's moves reflect a shift of focus in Western diplomacy in ex-Yugoslavia to what major powers consider the urgent need for a solution in Kosovo, the U.N.-run Serbian province whose Albanian majority demands independence.
Brussels hopes the promise of a common EU roof for all the Balkan states can smooth what are expected to be very difficult talks starting next month and cement stability in a region that saw 250,000 die in three wars in the 1990s.
The EU opened its door despite the fact that former Bosnian Serb Army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, one of the two most wanted men on del Ponte's list, was still a fugitive. She is convinced he is being sheltered by the army in Serbia.
Mladic is accused along with his former boss Radovan Karadzic of genocide in the Bosnia war from 1992 to 1995.
NEW DEADLINE FOR MLADIC
With the EU decision flagged a day ahead of the ambassadors' meeting, del Ponte chose to accentuate the positive, praising Serbia for the handover of 16 fugitives since October last year plus the delivery of documents and access to witnesses.
"Of course, my big disappointment is that six fugitives are still at large, most probably in Serbia. And of course, Mladic," del Ponte said.
She said she had expected Mladic to be in detention by July 11, in time for the 10th anniversary commemoration of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslims.
"Now we have another deadline," she said. "It will be the Dayton accord in December." The Dayton accords which ended the Bosnia war were concluded in the United States on November 21 and formally signed at a Paris ceremony on December 14.
Kostunica said he was fully aware of what was expected.
"It is certain the course of the (EU) talks will be influenced by whether Serbia and Montenegro fulfills its international obligations concerning cooperation with the tribunal," he said.
"But it's not just about the EU. Fulfilling this cooperation is of vital interest for Serbia and Montenegro," he added.
EU foreign ministers will endorse Thursday's decision on Oct. 3, putting Serbia-Montenegro on the membership track two days before the fifth anniversary of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's fall from power.
EU Enlargement chief Olli Rehn will visit Belgrade on Oct. 10, kicking off talks for a stabilisation and association agreement. This is a first step in the long process towards EU accession, but it does not in itself guarantee membership.
The start of Croatia's accession talks with the EU has been suspended indefinitely over its failure to find and arrest fugitive General Ante Gotovina, wanted for the killing of Serbs by his troops in a victorious offensive in 1995.
Del Ponte visits Croatia on Friday to discuss the issue.
Bosnia is now the only state in the region not to have formally embarked on the road to EU membership. It was told this month it would not be able to start SAA talks this year after the Bosnian Serb parliament rejected an EU-backed plan to create an inter-ethnic and unified police force.