The EU police and justice mission in Kosovo (EULEX) could become fully operational in early December, if it overcomes objections from local Serb minority to its deployment, according to its chief Yves de Kermabon.
European police and justice officials hope to operational in Kosovo by the end of the year
De Kermabon -- who used to command NATO-led peacekeeping troops in Kosovo (KFOR) -- estimated that an accord with Serbia on EULEX's deployment in Kosovo was "not far away", but said he has remained nevertheless "prudent".
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority proclaimed independence from Serbia on February 17, a move that has been recognized more than 50 countries, including most of the EU members and the United States.
But the Serb minority -- some 100,000 who have remained in Kosovo -- are backed by Belgrade and its powerful ally Russia in rejecting the independence of the territory which they still consider as Serbia's southern province.
Ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo, where they make a majority, fiercely oppose EULEX's deployment, considering it would indirectly mean the recognition of Kosovo's independence.
Yves de Kermabon hopes the opposition will dissipate
"I think it will be possible to really kick off the mission in early December, in its first, initial phase, having in mind that we will again need a little more time, undoubtedly, to gather all personnel in order to be fully deployed throughout Kosovo," De Kermabon said in an interview with the AFP news agency.
In February, the EU decided to deploy EULEX in Kosovo, to replace the United Nations mission (UNMIK) that has administered the territory since the end of 1998-1999 war there.
Opposition in Serbia sees EULEX as illegal
But Belgrade, as well as Kosovo Serbs, consider EULEX illegal without the approval of the UN Security council for its deployment.
The mission should comprise some 2,000 police, justice and customs officials, in charge of "improving the rule of law and rights" in Kosovo, De Kermabon said. They will be assisted by about 1,000 local staff.
"EULEX will not be deployed by force," the French official said.
The UN mission in Kosovo could work with the EU
He indicated a possibility of a joint EULEX and UNMIK deployment in Serb-populated northern Kosovo, in order to provide an easier transition.
"This is not impossible, in a transitional period which will have to be shortest possible," he said.
"I hope that before the end of winter at the latest, EULEX will be fully deployed throughout Kosovo."
The French official also indicated that an "accord" with Belgrade over the disputed issue "is not far away".
"This is my feeling, but I remain prudent," he said.
Tadic looking for UN approval before agreeing
Tadic opposes to EULEX but UN approval could change that
Serbian President Boris Tadic said earlier this week that the agreement over EULEX deployment between Belgrade and the EU was possible, but insisted it could be reached only by obtaining a green light from the UN Security Council for the mission.
De Kermabon estimated that it was in the interest of the Serbian authorities to have EULEX working also in the north of Kosovo.
Opposition to its deployment came from a "certain number of fanatics in the north, who are still holding a part of the population under their control," he said.
If Belgrade "wants to put an end to smuggling and corruption in the north, it will be necessary for them to get rid of these fanatics sooner or later," De Kermabon said.
The north, without obvious police or customs control, has become "the biggest smuggling zone", De Kermabon estimated, noting especially untaxed traffic of petrol.
Serbs say cooperation will be impossible
A Serb representatives in Kosovo, Nebojsa Jovic, reiterated his opposition to EULEX deployment, estimating that it "will be impossible to cooperate" with the EU-led mission.
Jovic said he doubted EULEX's capability to protect the rights of minority Serbs.
"How can they talk about protecting human rights when some 250,000 Serbs cannot return to Kosovo?" he asked, in a reference to those who have left the territory since 1999.