"We will never allow anybody to sign for the independence of Kosovo in the name of Serbia and that is why today's signature is not worth anything," Kostunica said on Tuesday.

'Happier chapter'

Tadic, signed the accord with the 27 foreign ministers after the Netherlands and Belgium lifted their vetoes to signing the pact with Serbia, said that it was an important moment in his country's history.

"This is absolutely not an empty shell, this is a great political step"

Vuk Jeremic, Serbia's foreign minister
"The signing of this agreement and other similar accords with  other Balkan nations allows us to turn a happier chapter on our history," he said, an allusion to the long years of conflict as Yugoslavia broke up.

Vuk Jeremic, Serbia's foreign minister, welcomed the trade-and-aid deal and rejected criticism that it was little more than a political gesture.
 
"This is absolutely not an empty shell, this is a great political step,"
he said.

However, Serbian officials stressed that it did not mean that Belgrade had given up its sovereign rights to Kosovo, even though most EU nations have recognised the majority ethnic Albanian territory as a separate state.

War crimes suspects

Dimitrij Rupel, the Slovenian foreign minister, whose country holds the EU presidency, said: "This is a great opportunity for Serbia, it's a strong signal to Serbia to join us, to come to the European Union."

However, the practical benefits of the deal, millions of euros in new aid and access to the EU's large trade market, will remain on hold until Belgrade has handed over indicted war crime suspects, diplomats and officials said.

Those include General Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander, who is wanted for genocide.

Dutch officials were pleased, saying they had succeeded in linking Serbia's ties with the EU to its conduct in bringing Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb political leader, to the UN court.

Source: Agencies