Turkish FM upbeat on Sandzak deal

Nov. 15, 2011 at 6:25 AM

BELGRADE, Serbia, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says he's hopeful a political settlement for a religious dispute in the Muslim Serbian enclave of Sandzak is near.

Davutoglu told the Anatolia News Agency before talks in Belgrade with his Serbian counterpart Vuk Jeremic Saturday he's hopeful a recent round of diplomacy between the two nations can result in a positive outcome in Serbia's Muslim-dominated Sandzak region.

"Encouraged by the strong friendship between Turkey and Serbia, we are trying hard to bring solidarity and peace to Sandzak," Davutoglu said.

The top Turkish diplomat said his country will "keep working on the issue in cooperation with Serbia, and I am leaving with positive impressions."

It was Davutoglu's third meeting in three weeks with Serbian leaders as the two sides worked to overcome tensions in Sandzak, where Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, are feuding with the region's Serbian Muslim faction over which direction to follow.

Turkey is working with Serbia to help reconcile the two sides and prevent a possible separation of the region -- half of which is in Montenegro and half in Serbia -- into an autonomous zone, a goal supported by Mufti of Sandzak Muamer Zukorlic and by the Party of Democratic Action of Sandzak, led by Sulejman Ugljanin.

Zukorlic urges Muslims in Sandzak to follow the mufti of Bosnia, while those in the region's Serbian-dominated municipalities opt for the mufti of Serbia.

Turkey worked on crafting a solution last month in Ankara, when it helped draft a tentative agreement between the two main political parties in Sandzak -- the Sandzak Democratic Party, led by Rasim Ljajic, and Ugljanin's separatist Party of Democratic Action of Sandzak, the Turkish daily Today's Zaman reported.

The proposed resolution calls for setting up a religious affairs directorate in Sandzak that would enforce a separation of politics and religion in the poverty-stricken Muslim enclave.

The newspaper said Ljajic hailed the proposal as a turning point in Sandzak's history after which "the real problem of Sandzak, its economy, can finally be discussed and resolved."

"The purpose of our talks with the Serbian side is to establish an Islamic Union in this country, to gather Muslims living under one roof," an unnamed senior Turkish diplomat told the Hurriyet Daily News last week.

Davutoglu and Jeremic have reportedly taken personal responsibility for solving the tense relations between the two Muslim factions, which has occasionally broken out into violence including mosque-burnings and harassment of religious leaders on both sides.

"That was Serbia who demanded Turkey's contribution to the solution of this issue," the diplomat said. "Turkey sees the Sandzak region as a bridge of friendship with Serbia. That's why we have not hesitated in engaging in this process, which could bring stability and prosperity to this region and to Serbia."

Davutoglu is said to be leveraging close relationships with his Serbian counterpart as well as with Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric of Bosnia to produce a settlement in the region.

Ankara sees an opportunity to resolve the Sandzak crisis due partly to Belgrade's desire to join the European Union, Hurriyet reported.

Serbia is hoping to improve its chances with the EU by launching political dialogue with Kosovo, and positive movement on the Sandzak issue could also help its cause.

"The EU process is very important for Serbia to keep on the track. A positive sign from the EU can change many things," the Turkish diplomat said.

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