WASHINGTON, May 17 (AFP) -
The international community is nearing talks on the final status of Kosovo, the Serbian province administered by the United Nations since 1999, US officials said Tuesday.
"This summer, the United Nations will review Kosovo's progress on achieving standards for democracy and multiethnicity," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.
"If that review is positive, the international community will launch a diplomatic process to determine Kosovo's future status," Boucher said.
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.
Boucher would not discuss details or prospects for the UN review but a senior US official was upbeat about chances for clearing the hurdle to the discussions of Kosovo's status.
"I think we all believe it's headed in that direction," said the official, who asked not to be named. "We all believe we are coming to the time when we should deal with the status issues."
Boucher would not discuss whether Kosovo was headed for independence. He said Nicholas Burns, undersecretary for political affairs, would outline the US position in testimony before Congress on Wednesday and a speech Thursday.
Burns and other US officials have been in close contact with their European partners on the Kosovo issue, as well as with the United Nations, Boucher said.
Plans for Kosovo's future, he said, had to be formulated "consistent with the goals of promoting regional stability and protecting the rights of all of Kosovo's citizens, especially its minorities."
Kosovan 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 Kosovan Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi next Tuesday for first-time top-level talks in the province, where nearly 20,000 NATO troops are still deployed.
Boucher said the United States and its allies were looking at Kosovo within the context of a broader regional policy for the Balkans.
"We think we're now entering a new stage in our policy toward the Balkans, one that will accelerate the region's integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions," he said.
Boucher said that Kosovo was still hit with occasional violence and had problems putting its economy on track. "The situation's not a stable one or a good one now," he said.