A group of senior international envoys on Wednesday discussed Kosovo's future status for the first time with the disputed U.N.-run province's leaders, laying out three key guidelines.
Michael Scheffer, a senior German diplomat, said the province could not return to the situation before 1999, when it was under direct Serbian rule. He ruled out the province being partitioned along ethnic Albanian and Serbian lines. He also ruled out the creation of any new union between predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo and other countries in the region, such as Albania.
The guidelines leave several options open, including independence or a loose union with Serbia.
"It is paramount that the solution of Kosovo's status strengthens in the first place regional security and stability," Scheffer said after the meeting. He added that no unilateral solution or those arrived to by the use of force would be acceptable.
Scheffer spoke on behalf of the so-called Contact Group that includes representatives from U.S., the European Union, U.K., France, Russia, Italy and Germany after a series of talks held over the last three days with leaders from Kosovo and Serbia as well as the province's U.N. administrators.
Kosovo has been an international protectorate administered by the U.N. and a North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led peacekeeping force since 1999, when a NATO air war ended a Serb crackdown on ethnic-Albanian separatists.
Serbs consider Kosovo an integral part of their state, but the province's ethnic Albanian majority want complete independence.
"Finding a permanent solution can only be the result of dialogue and negotiations," Scheffer said.
Talks to decide the province's future will be held later this year, if Kosovo reaches internationally set standards for protecting minority rights, democratization and the reform of local governance, which would give Serbs and other minorities more say in areas where they live.
Scheffer also added that the diplomats urged the start of the dialogue between ethnic Albanians and Serbs as a first step in the attempts to bridge the great divide between the two sides on Kosovo's future status.
Serbia's President Boris Tadic said Tuesday he would invite Kosovo's President Ibrahim Rugova for direct talks on the future of the province. But in a sign of deep distrust, Rugova promptly refused the invitation, saying the meeting could only happen "after Kosovo's independence is recognized."