BRUSSELS — European Union leaders formally made Serbia a candidate for membership in the bloc, in a remarkable turnaround for a country considered a pariah just over a decade ago.

Serbia had been widely expected to get EU candidacy in December after it captured two top war crimes suspects, but was disappointed when Germany delayed the move, saying it wanted to see more progress in talks with Kosovo.

“We agreed tonight to grant Serbia the status of candidate country,” EU President Herman Van Rompuy said after a meeting of the bloc’s heads of state and government.

“This is a remarkable result,” he said. “I hope Belgrade will continue to encourage good neighborly relations in the Western Balkans.”

Serbia spent much of the 1990s ostracized and isolated from the EU after its then-strongman Slobodan Milosevic started the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia to prevent a crackdown on ethnic Albanians.

Candidate status is an initial step on the road to EU membership. Belgrade will still probably have to wait for about a year to open actual accession negotiations, which can then drag on for several years.

Still, the EU move is politically important for Serbia’s pro-EU president, Boris Tadic, whose party faces elections soon.

The European Parliament urged the bloc’s executive body on Thursday to open accession negotiations with Serbia as soon as possible.

Kosovo, which many Serbs consider the cradle of their statehood and religion, came under international control after the 1999 war during which NATO forces ejected Milosevic’s troops. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but Serbia refuses to recognize it.

The EU has not set recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia’s candidacy, but it insists Serbia establish “good-neighborly relations” with its former province.

Over the past year, the two sides have been engaged in EU-mediated talks dealing mostly with practical matters such as recognizing each other’s official documents. A key agreement reached last month allows Kosovo to represent itself in international conferences and spell out the technical details of how Serbia and Kosovo will manage their joint borders and border crossings.

Kosovo has been recognized by nearly 90 nations, including 22 of the EU’s 27 member states. But Serbia has blocked its membership in the U.N., where many countries also reject unilateral declarations of independence.

Tim Judah, a London-based Balkan analyst and author, said the EU decision was good for Serbia “because it means that minds can concentrate on the building a better Serbia for the future, and not resort to looking back to the past.”

“What is good for Serbia is also good for the region,” Judah said. “A sign of confidence in the biggest state of the western Balkans will always have at least some effect with the neighbors.” 


Slobodan Lekic can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich

A boy throws a piece of ice into a frozen fountain in Milan, Italy, on Sunday as a cold front continues to affect the country.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

RESTELICA, Kosovo — Rescuers have pulled a 5-year-old girl alive from the rubble of a house flattened by a massive avalanche that killed both her parents and at least seven of her relatives in a remote mountain village in southern Kosovo.

Col. Shemsi Syla, a spokesman for the Kosovo Security Force, said Sunday officers discovered the girl when they heard her voice and cell phone. Her home was buried under 33 feet of snow.

Rescuers cheered and pumped their fists in the air late Saturday as the girl was pulled out alive. A video aired on Klan Kosova TV showed rescuers covering the girl with blankets, before she was rushed to hospital.

Osman Qerreti, an emergency official at the site, told The Associated Press that at least nine members of her family died when the avalanche in the village of Restelica near Kosovo’s border with Macedonia and Albania destroyed seven houses, of which only two were inhabited.

Amid subfreezing temperatures Sunday, local villagers baring fierce snowstorms used shovels to dig deep into the snow-covered rubble — all that remained of the one-story brick houses. One more person is believed missing.

“No bigger tragedy has ever struck this region,” said local district official Behar Ramadani. “Two brothers with their wives and children have been killed.”

The girl, identified as Asmira Reka, was recovering in hospital in the nearby town of Prizren. Doctors said her life was not in danger, but her parents had perished in the avalanche, and she had been buried for more than 10 hours.

NATO peacekeepers, deployed in Kosovo to end the armed conflict between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians in 1999, had been called in to help local authorities in the rescue, but they were unable to land their helicopter due to a fierce blizzard.

Rescuers initially dug out the bodies of a married couple and their 17-year-old son. Six more bodies were discovered during the excavation.

The cold snap in Europe, which began late January, has killed hundreds of people — most of them homeless. Heavy snow has been blanketing the Balkans for more than two weeks, with Restelica and roads in the region blocked for several days.

In neighboring Montenegro, where the government introduced a state of emergency because of the deep freeze, special police forces on Sunday managed to reach about 50 train passengers stranded for two days after tracks were blocked by avalanches.

Police said a 55-year-old passenger had died from a heart attack Saturday night, while the others were sheltering in a nearby tunnel.

The airport in Podgorica remained closed Sunday and the streets were blocked by snow up to 57 centimeters (22 inches) high — the highest since measurements started in the capital in 1949.

Authorities have banned driving in the capital, while many parked cars were damaged after snow-covered trees fell on them.

Police in Bosnia said the roof of a sports center in downtown Sarajevo used for ice skating events in the 1984 Winter Olympics collapsed Sunday under the weight of snow. No injuries or fatalities have been reported.

In Serbia, the snow continued to fall Sunday as some 50,000 people remained stranded in snowbound remote areas, some without electricity. In Albania the government is expected to declare a state of emergency in the north and south of the country, said Prime Minister Sali Berisha.

Much of Italy’s north-central east was digging out Sunday after heavy snowfall collapsed roofs onto barnyard animals, closed roads and wreaked havoc with air transport.

Twenty horses were killed when a roof collapsed in Badia Tedalda, one of the central Tuscan towns hardest hit by the snow, the ANSA news agency reported. In Le Marche, regional civil protection crews reported thousands of cows, pigs and other farm animals killed.

In Rome, the sun shone and whatever snow remained from Saturday’s blizzard — the second in as many weeks — melted away. But Mayor Gianni Alemanno kept a ban in place on motorcycles in the city center, where some streets remained icy.

In Russia, 20,000 amateur and professional cross-country skiers in Yakhroma, some 30 miles from Moscow, were undeterred by temperatures of minus 23 degrees Celsius. They raced for about three miles as part of a annual skiing competition.