PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro (Reuters) - The United States warned Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders on Wednesday they should be ready to compromise in talks with Serbia during which the Albanian majority hope to secure unconditional independence.
The comments by U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns were the strongest hint yet that talks, which could take place in September or October, would not result in full and immediate independence as demanded by the 90-percent Albanian majority.
They appeared to suggest a bridging solution that diplomats say would involve extensive rights for minority Serbs and continued international oversight.
"Kosovo Albanians must be willing to compromise," Burns, the third most senior State Department official, told reporters after meeting political leaders. "We are not going to impose a settlement, we're not even going to say what we support as a final compromise, but we will insist on compromise."
Washington has refused to commit itself publicly to a solution to the fate of Serbia's southern province.
At least two influential international think-tanks have recommended a form of conditional independence that would tie Kosovo Albanians into guaranteeing extensive rights for the Serb minority under the oversight of the European Union or a Bosnia-style international envoy.
Diplomats in Pristina say Kosovo's fragile democracy is not ready for the responsibilities of a fully independent and sovereign state, particularly after Albanian rioting and arson last year killed 19 people and left 2,000 Serbs homeless.
UN TO CHECK PROGRESS
The West is pushing Kosovo's leaders for greater rights for the 100,000 remaining Serbs, but parliament has held up a U.N.-backed project to create new Serb-majority local councils.
U.N. envoy Kai Eide is due in Kosovo on Monday to begin assessing whether the political leaders have made sufficient progress on minority rights and security for talks to begin in September or October.
If Eide's report is positive, the U.N. plans to appoint a special envoy for what could be months of shuttle diplomacy between Belgrade and Pristina to hammer out a solution.
The United States has said it wants the green light to close the final chapter in the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
"We don't think the status quo here is sustainable, we think that change has to come and that should come in 2005," Burns said.
The United Nations took control of Kosovo in 1999 after 78 days of NATO bombing expelled Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians in fighting to crush a separatist insurgency.
Kosovo's Albanian leaders have been promising statehood ever since. But Serbs say independence for the land they consider the sacred cradle of their nation is out of the question.
Burns said he would urge compromise too when he meets Serb leaders in Belgrade on Thursday. "There needs to be a recognition that it is not possible to retrieve the past, it is not possible to recreate the past," he said.