The United Nations has ruled out blocking the appointment of an ex-guerrilla commander as prime minister of Kosovo, despite concern in the West that he could be charged with war crimes.
Ramush Haradinaj is set to become prime minister in the U.N. protectorate under a coalition deal which parliament is expected to vote on early next month following October elections.
But the announcement coincided with media reports that he could be indicted for war crimes after twice being interviewed this month by investigators from the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.
"We leave this decision in the hands of the political parties and the Kosovo assembly," U.N. spokesman Jeff Bieley told a news conference in Kosovo on Wednesday.
He echoed U.N. governor Soren Jessen-Petersen, who said that to say no to Haradinaj would be to "say no to democracy."
Western diplomats warn of unrest and possible violence should the burly former regional commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) be arrested while in office.
They say stability is crucial as Serbia's southern province nears talks expected next year on whether the Albanian majority gets the independence it demands.
His appointment could further sour relations between Kosovo and Serb leaders in Belgrade, where Haradinaj is already considered a war criminal. Serbia's president said making him prime minister was "absolutely unacceptable".
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana weighed into the dispute earlier this week, telling reporters in Brussels that the 36-year-old politician might not be the best person to lead Kosovo towards negotiations on its "final status".
The West wants to open status talks in mid-2005, provided Kosovo makes sufficient progress on U.N.-set benchmarks of democracy, minority rights and the rule of law.
The office of chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte has said it is working on an investigation concerning the former KLA leadership, without giving details.
"I did not receive any cooperation from the international community on this investigation," del Ponte said this month. "However, I am confident I will be able to issue a solid indictment by the end of this year."
The province of two million people became a U.N. protectorate in 1999 after NATO bombing expelled Serb forces to end what Western powers said was ruthless disregard for civilians in fighting an Albanian rebel insurgency.
After Albanian riots against Serbs and other minorities in March, an internal U.N. report warned that pressure for independence was so great that a decision on Kosovo's "final status" could no longer be safely postponed.
But in a report to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the standards had not yet been met, describing progress made so far as "uneven and limited".