The Bush administration pressed yesterday for a quick timetable to open international negotiations that would settle the status of Kosovo and allow US troops to leave the Balkans.
"We and our allies are entering a new stage in our policy towards the Balkans, one that will accelerate the region's integration into the European family and Euro-Atlantic institutions," Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state, told Congress.
Mr Burns also reiterated US demands that Belgrade arrest and hand over Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army commander who oversaw the massacre of several thousand Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.
A diplomat said Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, had written to Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, expressing confidence that the ex-general would be handed to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague by July 11, the anniversary of the massacre.
Mr Burns said US troops went into Kosovo with Nato in 1999 to prevent the mass killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces, and would stay there "until the job is done".
"We seek, of course, to hasten the day when peace is self-sustaining and our troops can come home," he told the House committee on international relations. The US has about 1,800 troops in Kosovo - some 10 per cent of the Nato force there - and several hundred in Bosnia.
While there is a strong body of opinion in the Bush administration and Congress that Kosovo - a province of Serbia - should be granted independence, diplomats believe Washington's main priority is to reach any agreement that would allow the US to disengage.
Mr Burns said: "2005 is a year of decision." But diplomats said any rapid decision on Kosovo's future was unrealistic.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority overwhelmingly seeks independence. Boris Tadic, the president of Serbia, has proposed "more than autonomy, less than independence". One of Belgrade's main concerns - other than losing a province deeply embedded in Serbian history - is that ultra-nationalist Serbian parties could sweep back to power.
Kosovo has been run as an international protectorate by the United Nations since Nato's intervention. Kosovo's undefined future was "not sustainable or desirable", Mr Burns said.
Under a plan supported by the Contact Group of the main European powers and the US, the UN will be asked to appoint Kai Eide, a Norwegian envoy, to review Kosovo's progress on a list of democratic "standards".
The US expects a positive assessment. That would be followed by the UN appointment of a European politician and an American diplomat to lead negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo.
Ibrahim Rugova, the Kosovo Albanian president, said yesterday he was ready to meet Mr Tadic for what would be the highest-level meeting between the two sides since 1999. www.ft.com/europe