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As Belgrade and Pristina mull forming an association of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo, ethnic Albanians in South Serbia now want the same deal for themselves.
Serbian officials have slapped down a call from ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia for the formation of an autonomous "association" of Albanian-majority municipalities.
Zoran Stankovic, head of the the government's Coordinating Body for Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, has told local Albanians to stop comparing the situation in their region with that of the Serbian minority in neighbouring Kosovo.
"South Serbia is an inseparable part of Serbia and there can be no discussion [of an association of municipalities]," Stankovic said on Tuesday.
He added that he had enjoyed support in this view from the US Ambassador, Michael Kirby, the British Ambassador, Michael Davenport, and the EU head of delegation, Vincent Degert.
Stankovic's tough response came after members of the Albanian Assembly of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja on Saturday adopted a declaration demanding various measures to improve their status.
Ethnic Albanians in the three municipalities, which border Kosovo and are home to most of Serbia's Albanians, say they want an association modeled on the community of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo to which the governments of Serbia and Kosovo have recently agreed.
South Serbia is home to 50,000 or so Albanians. In 2001, the region saw an armed conflict between the security forces and Albanian rebels, which ended with the help of the international community and NATO.
Riza Halimi, the only Albanian MP in the Serbian parliament, said that there were plenty of similarities between the position and demands of the Serbs in the north of Kosovo and that of Albanians in South Serbia.
"As ways to solve these problems are trying to find a resolution in Kosovo, why cannot the same mechanism be applied to solve the same problems - only with twice the population - in this region?" he asked.
The ethnic Albanian initiative comes at a time when Kosovo and Serbia are reported to be close to a deal on the troubled north of Kosovo.
Serbia's President, Tomislav Nikolic, on Monday said that a deal between Kosovo and Serbia over northern Kosovo was within sight, following talks in Brussels in which Kosovo had "relented" over the powers to be given to an "Association of Serbian Municipalities".
In the next round of talks due on March 20, the Serbian and Kosovo prime ministers, Ivica Dacic and Hashim Thaci, are expected to flesh out the modalities of dismantling Serbian-financed "parallel" institutions in the Serb-run north of Kosovo, and discuss the future operations of the "Association of Serbian Municipalities".
The association's precise powers remain unclear and are still a subject of debate between Kosovo and Serbia, which, however, has made no secret of seeking the broadest possible autonomy.
After Belgrade removed a memorial to ethnic Albanian fighters in Presevo, some locals called for political dialogue but others rejected cooperation with the government.
The South Serbia region, predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians, lies some 350 kilometres south of Serbia`s capital, Belgrade. In contemporary political language, the term “South Serbia” is understood to refer to the territory of three municipalities - Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja.
A snapshot of South Serbia's business and industry
Resources and institutions of South Serbia
Facts and figures on the population, ethnic composition and geography of South Serbia
Profiles of main political leaders in South Serbia
Profiles of main political parties in South Serbia
Snapshots of ordinary life in South Serbia show the people of Bujanovac and Presevo, and give a brief look at the symbols of the region.
If you meet someone who has a computer, a good car, a new house but no job, he just might be living in Presevo.