BELGRADE (AP)--Serbia won't accept independence for Kosovo, the country's deputy prime minister said Tuesday, ahead of a top-level meeting to plot Serbia's strategy for the future of the volatile province.
Miroljub Labus said the demands by the majority ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to split from Serbia and form an independent state are "unacceptable."
The province's ethnic Albanians, who fought a war against Yugoslav government troops in 1998-99, insist on full independence, but Serbs see the province as their historic heartland and an integral part of Serbia.
Labus repeated the official Serbian stand that Kosovo can only be granted "more than autonomy but less than independence."
"We don't think that Kosovo's independence, conditional or unconditional, is an acceptable solution for Serbia," Labus told reporters.
But he said that a compromise on Kosovo is possible during future internationally mediated negotiations with ethnic Albanians.
"The solution depends on all participants of the negotiations. Serbia has a maneuvering space in the negotiations, and we have to use it," Labus said without elaborating.
Kosovo formally remains part of Serbia-Montenegro, Yugoslavia's successor state, but has been an international protectorate since the 1999 NATO bombing halted Serbia's crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians and forced Belgrade to relinquish control over Kosovo to the U.N. and NATO.
The Kosovo peace process suffered a grave setback in March 2004 when bloody rioting by Kosovo Albanians left 19 people dead and destroyed numerous Serbian homes and churches.
Labus was speaking ahead of a meeting later Tuesday by the top Serbian leadership which was to confirm the republic's official stand ahead of a U.N. Security Council debate on Kosovo scheduled for May 27.
Talks to decide the province's future are expected later this year if the U.N. determines that Kosovo has reached internationally set standards for protecting minority rights, democratization and the reform of local governance.