Wed May 18, 1:55 PM ET
The final status of Kosovo, the UN-administered Serbian province, could be resolved in a little over a year, although historical ethnic divisions remain a concern, a top US State Department official said.
"We need to finish the work of ending the divisive strife that has prevented the countries of the Balkans from advancing politically and economically in line with their European neighbors," US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told a congressional panel.
"We must work hard to help the people of Kosovo find greater security, ethnic reconciliation and peace in 2005," he said.
"Failure to secure a multi-ethnic Kosovo would be a failure of our efforts over the last six years, and indeed the last decade," said Burns.
While a specific timetable has not been set, "we would hope to be able to bring a settlement to the (UN) Security Council sometime before the end of next year," he said in testimony before the US House of Representatives' International Affairs Committee's hearing on Kosovo's current and future status.
The undersecretary, who along with other US officials has been in close contact with European and UN officials, told the committee that Kosovo's final status "must be based on multi-ethnicity, with full respect for human rights, including the right of all refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes in safety."
He also called for "effective constitutional guarantees to ensure the protections of minorities" and for "safeguards for the protection of cultural and religious heritage," noting that it was just six years ago that NATO intervened "in a campaign to end Slobodan Milosevic's reign of terror in Kosovo and halt his attempted ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population" there.
Later, ethnic Albanians sought "retribution," Burns said, driving over 100,000 Serbs and Roma from their homes in Kosovo.
In recent status talks, Washington has raised the issue of protection of minorities after the United Nations pulls out of the region.
"We ... made clear that we expect that the international civilian and military presences would continue in place past a status settlement to ensure its full implementation, and to monitor the political and security situation for Kosovo's minorities," Burns told the panel.
Kosovar and Serbian politicians held their first face-to-face talks since the war in October 2003, agreeing to launch a dialogue on matters of mutual concern such as missing people, energy and refugees.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has offered to meet with Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi next Tuesday for first-time top-level talks in the province, where nearly 20,000 NATO troops are still deployed.
Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations since a NATO-led war six years ago ousted Serbian troops. Ethnic Albanians, who represent 90 percent of the population there, are lobbying for full independence.
Talks on the eventual status of Kosovo are dependent on the international community agreeing that the ethnic Albanian authorities there are applying full democratic rights.