European Union leaders have endorsed Serbia as a candidate for membership in the 27-nation bloc.
Thursday's confirmation of candidate status is seen as a historic step for a nation that only 13 years ago was the target of a NATO bombing campaign.
"This is a remarkable result," said EU President Herman Van Rompuy after a meeting of the bloc's heads of state in Brussels.
"I hope Belgrade will continue to encourage good neighbourly relations in the Western Balkans," he said.
Serbian President Boris Tadic said the prospect of EU membership paved the way for "economic advance and prosperity", but warned of a lot of work ahead to launch negotiations.
"Citizens of Serbia have suffered the heaviest burden of overall reforms in our country (necessary) for it to become a democratic society based on the rule of law, in which human and minority rights are respected and European values confirmed," Tadic said in a statement released by his office.
Serbia, which began the application process in 2009, had been widely expected to gain EU candidacy in December after the capture and extradition to The Hague earlier in the year of the country's last two war crimes suspects, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic.
That move was ultimately delayed by Germany, who wanted to see more progress in talks with the former Serbian province and partially recognised republic in Kosovo.
Germany and Britain are among 22 EU member states to have recognised Kosovo since it declared independence in 2008, although five EU members, including Spain and Greece, have not recognised Pristina.
Serbia became a pariah state under former president Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s as Belgrade and Serbian armed groups waged wars against Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina during the chaotic breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
NATO forces bombed much of the country in 1999 in response to a crackdown by Serbian forces on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Milosevic was toppled from power in 2000 and sent to face war crimes at The Hague, where he died in 2006 before his trial was completed.
Being granted candidate status is only an initial step on the road to EU membership for Belgrade. But it will still probably have to wait a year to open actual accession negotiations, which can then take several more years.
The EU has not set recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia's candidacy, but insists Serbia establish "good-neighbourly relations" with its former province.
Over the past year, the two sides have been engaged in EU-mediated talks, focusing mainly on practical matters, such as management of joint borders and border crossings.
Kosovo is recognised by nearly 90 nations, but Serbia has blocked its membership in the UN, where many countries also reject unilateral declarations of independence.
Tim Judah, a London-based Balkan analyst and author, told The Associated Press news agency that the EU decision was good for Serbia. "It means that minds can concentrate on building a better Serbia for the future, and not resort to looking back to the past."
Brussels' endorsement of its membership bid is seen as politically important for Tadic, whose party faces fierce opposition from nationalists in forthcoming elections.
Serbia's candidacy continues the progress of former Yugoslav republics towards EU membership. Slovenia became the first former Yugoslav state to join the EU in 2004, while Croatia last year signed an accession treaty to join the economic bloc in 2013.
Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia already have candidate status, while Bosnia and Kosovo have the status of potential candidates.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|