Serbia rejected on Monday a European Union-brokered deal for reconciliation with its former province of Kosovo — a defiant move that could jeopardize the Balkan country's EU membership aspirations and fuel tensions in the region.
The EU had given Serbia until Tuesday to say whether it would relinquish its effective control over northern Kosovo in exchange for the start of membership negotiations.
Even before the rejection, a top leader had said the plan is unacceptable because it does not give more autonomy to minority ethnic Serbs in Kosovo who together with Serbia reject Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.
"The Serbian government cannot accept the proposed principles ... because they do not guarantee full security, survival and protection of human rights for the Serbs in Kosovo," Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said. "Such an agreement could not be implemented and would not lead to a lasting and sustainable solution."
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said after the eighth round of talks between Serbian and Kosovo officials last week in Brussels that she wanted a response from both sides and that the bloc's mediation was over.
Despite warnings that there will be no more EU-sponsored mediation, Vucic and the government called for more talks with the rival ethnic Albanians leaders of Kosovo.
"If there is a negative answer from (the EU), that would be bad news for Serbia, Kosovo and the EU," Vucic said. "If that happens, we would have to start thinking of what to do next.
"We don't want Serbia isolated from the world, but we have to protect our interests. It is highly important that we reach an agreement."
In a statement issued after Serbia's rejection, Ashton called on Belgrade "to make a last effort to reach an agreement, for the benefit of their people." But while she made no mention of formally extending the negotiation process, she said she hoped to lead "the discussion in the EU over the next few days in support of a real step forward by both Serbia and Kosovo towards their European future."
The rejection of the proposal could severely hamper Serbia's EU membership aspirations — which would include millions of dollars of promised accession funds. The rejection also could lead to more tensions in the Balkans, which are still reeling from the bloody wars of the 1990s when Serbia tried to prevent the breakup of the former Yugoslav federation by force.
Kosovo's government said it was "disappointed with Serbia's refusal" but remained hopeful a deal could still be reached.
"The proposals made by the EU... would have marked the beginning of closure in a historic conflict in the region," a Kosovo government statement said.
While some 90 countries — including the United States and most EU nations — have recognized Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, it has been rejected by Serbia and ally Russia.
The most contentious issue in the talks was the status of northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs dominate the population and refuse to accept the authority of the ethnic Albanian-controlled government in Kosovo's capital, Pristina.
Germany has made giving up control of Kosovo's north the key condition for the start of Serbia's EU accession negotiations.
The stumbling block in the talks was a Serbian demand that ethnic Serbs, who represent about 10 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people, have their own judiciary and police force. But Kosovo officials have rejected that, saying it would be tantamount to a division of Kosovo into two separate entities.
In Serbia, there are increasing calls among nationalists that Serbia should turn to its ally Russia instead of becoming an EU member. There also are suggestions from hardliners that Serbia should use force to reoccupy Kosovo, which it surrendered after a three-month NATO bombing campaign that pushed out its troops in 1999.
Vucic, a former ultranationalist turned moderate, said a military solution is out of the question.
"I'm hearing some 'heroes' who were never brave who are giving us lessons on how we should stroll into Pristina," he said. "They should not tell us what our decisions should be."
Several hundred far-right supporters demonstrated in front of the government headquarters in Belgrade during the Cabinet session, demanding that no deal is signed with the EU and Kosovo's leaders.
Associated Press writer Jovana Gec contributed to this report.