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International Steering Group passes sovereignty to Kosovo

Kosovo has taken another step toward sovereignty as an international monitoring group officially ended its mission on Monday. But, Serbia and five EU members still do not recognize Kosovo's claim to independence.

The International Steering Group ended its supervisory mission in Kosovo on Monday, four years after the Balkan republic declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.

The steering group was made up of 20 European Union member states and five non-EU countries, including the United States. It set up the International Civilian Office (ICO), whose mission was to help Kosovo create a stable, multi-ethnic state with an orientation toward the Western world.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle praised the republic's move toward more sovereignty.

"It's an important step and a success for international efforts," Westerwelle said. "Kosovo met significant democratic commitments and made progress in the protection of minorities."

'More work to be done'

US President Barack Obama congratulated Kosovo, but cautioned Pristina that it had to continue implementing the values stated in its constitution and work toward peace with Serbia.

"There is more work to be done, as Kosovo's leaders now assume full responsibility for ensuring that the principles enshrined in its declaration of independence and constitution are realized for every citizen," Obama said.

"Kosovo must also continue to engage constructively with its neighbors and work to resolve outstanding issues," he continued.

International minders to remain

Although the steering group has ended its work, several international missions will remain in Kosovo for the foreseeable future.

The NATO military alliance continues to maintain security in the republic with its more than 5,000-troop-strong KFOR deployment, while the European Union helps ensure the rule of law through its EULEX mission.

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) also maintains a presence, having begun its work after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that forced Serb forces out.

Frozen conflict

Although Serbia has become a candidate to join the European Union, it has refused to recognize the independence of Kosovo.

"For us, the question of Kosovo is not resolved until it becomes Serbia," Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told reporters in Belgrade on the sidelines of a conference about human trafficking.

There has been speculation that Brussels could make recognition of Kosovo a condition for Serbia to join the EU. Kosovo's independence has been recognized by 22 of the EU's 27 member states.

"How could recognition be set as a condition when not even all of the EU has recognized Kosovo?" Dacic asked.

Kosovo's 1.8 million people are 80 percent Albanian, while 5 percent are Serbs, most of them living near the border in the north. Many Serbs in Kosovo continue to view Belgrade as their legitimate government.

Kosovo's independence has been recognized by 91 countries worldwide. Russia, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council and a traditional Serbian ally, does not recognize Kosovo.

slk/ipj(AFP, dpa)