PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, June 7 (Reuters) - Kosovo's U.N. governor told the province's divided political leaders on Tuesday to begin preparing for negotiations on Kosovo's future status -- to remain part of Serbia or be independent.
Soren Jessen-Petersen said he had agreed with the leaders that a start must be made immediately on how they would approach the talks, in a fresh sign the negotiations would be held this autumn. No date has yet been set for the talks.
"We agreed that starting status preparations is a top priority," the Danish diplomat told reporters after the first meeting of the "Kosovo Forum", a U.N.-chaired body comprising Kosovo's president, prime minister and opposition leaders.
Kosovo's U.N. authorities hope the Forum will encourage the leaders to bury their differences, amid a fresh drive by the international community to settle the fate of Serbia's ethnic Albanian-dominated province.
Though united in their determination to win independence, the government and opposition have become bogged down in accusations of criminality which is slowing political progress the West wants before starting talks.
The opposition has produced a dossier it says shows cabinet ministers are involved in organised crime, while both sides accuse each other of spying on political opponents.
Acrimonious debate in parliament has delayed a U.N.-backed project for two new Serb-majority local councils designed to reassure ethnic minorities they have a future in the province.
YES OR NO
Despite this, Western pressure is gathering for the negotiations to begin in September or October and reach a yes-or-no decision on the Albanian demand for independence.
Washington said last month that 2005 should be the "year of decision" for Kosovo, whose 90-percent Albanian population wants to sever all ties to Serbia. Serbia says this is impossible.
U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns was due to visit Kosovo on Wednesday to press home Washington's determination to close the final chapter in the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Burns will be followed by Norway's Kai Eide, appointed last week by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to assess whether the situation in Kosovo is ripe for decision.
The United Nations has devised a list of standards on human rights, security, law and democracy which Kosovo must show it is trying to meet before the final status issue can be taken up.
Eide said he would travel to Pristina early next week to make an initial assessment but had no plans to rush a delicate mission in which he is seen as having to balance political considerations in the province, Belgrade and the major international powers involved in the U.N. mission.
"I have been asked to make a broad political assessment," Eide, Norway's ambassador to NATO, told Reuters in Brussels.
"The important thing is that my assessment is seen as credible by all and that I reflect reality on the ground as accurately as I possibly can. This is more important than the timing."
The province of 2 million people became a U.N. protectorate in 1999 after 78 days of NATO bombing expelled Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians in fighting to crush a separatist insurgency. It has been held in limbo ever since, impoverished and impatient for formal independence. (Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels)