Friday, February 18, 2005

Make Kosovo independent to avoid violence - group.

The Balkan province of Kosovo should move to independence as quickly as possible to head off any renewed violence, an international think-tank said on Friday.

Kosovo has drifted through over five years of United Nations administration since a NATO bombing campaign ended a separatist war between Serbia and ethnic Albanian guerrillas in 1999.

"From the Serbian side there has to be a recognition that Kosovo can never return to Belgrade rule. There also has to be a recognition that partition (of Kosovo) is simply not an option as part of this settlement process," said Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank working to resolve conflict.

Serbia and its traditional ally Russia oppose Kosovo's independence, but Evans said the settlement process needed to move forward even without their support.

"This train is leaving the station with or without the Serbs, with or without the Russians," he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this week that Kosovo had not made enough progress on a list of standards it needs to meet before its long-term status can be assessed.

The list includes progress on law and order, democracy, security and human rights.

Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, told a media briefing in London that any delay in resolving Kosovo's status could lead to further violence.

Ethnic Albanian rioting in Kosovo against Serbs and other minorities last March killed 19 people and forced hundreds from their homes.

"The truth of the matter is that an explosion of violence on a scale even to put last year's March events in the shade has to be contemplated," Evans said.

He blamed ethnic Albanian frustration for the riots, but added that Kosovo's parliament has to do more to protect the Serbian minority.

About 90 percent of the 1.9 million population are ethnic Albanians who demand independence. The Serbian government in Belgrade says Kosovo should remain part of Serbia and Montenegro.

A group of six countries including Russia and the European Union is heading the review of Kosovo's international status.

Around 10,000 ethnic Albanian civilians died in the 1998-99 war and tens of thousands fled to neighbouring Albania and Macedonia.

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