By NICHOLAS WOOD
PRISTINA, Kosovo, July 22 - In the six years since NATO bombers forced Yugoslav troops out of this troubled province, progress toward resolving the entrenched enmity here between Serbs and ethnic Albanians has been slow. The United Nations, which has been administering Kosovo, now wants to broker a deal and step aside.
The negotiations are bound to be painful. Serbs are determined to keep Kosovo, their religious heartland, while ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population, demand independence after suffering years of ethnic violence that culminated in the war of 1998 to 1999.
In one unusual peacemaking effort, a group backed by the British government has brought together eight politicians from two opposing camps - former Albanian guerrilla leaders on one side, and minority Kosovar Serbs on the other - for some exercises in getting along.
The group was divided into pairs, an Albanian and a Serb in each. Every day began with 15 minutes of staring into each other's eyes. Then they performed exercises - including climbing trees together and falling backward into each other's arms.
"We were trying to break their barriers down," said Scarlett MccGwire of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the group that organized the meeting.
They wanted to challenge the participants to see one another not as "terrorist" or "oppressor," but as human beings, Ms. MccGwire said.
To a surprising degree, the effort worked.
Xhavit Haliti, a founding member of the Kosovo Liberation Army, attended the encounter and found himself won over. "I would recommend it for all the party leaders," he said. By the end of the week, he said, he and his Serbian counterparts were going out to restaurants together and even shared a sauna.
But as successful as these exercises were, they also point to the tough road ahead in Kosovo, where the majority of each community still barely acknowledges the other.
Serbs face the possibility of living in an independent Albanian-dominated state. Diplomats say that if Albanians want to achieve anything like independence they will have to give the Serbs basic rights, like freedom of movement, as well as the right of those refugees who fled the region to return from Serbia.
The framework for the negotiations is still far from clear. The United Nations has commissioned a report to study if and when talks can start. Most diplomats expect the negotiations to begin by early October. The talks would involve local Albanian and Serb leaders, the Serbian government and representatives of leading industrial democracies.
While many Western officials privately acknowledge that independence is perhaps the only solution the Albanian population will accept, the Serbian government is hoping Kosovo will remain within Serbia, but be granted substantial autonomy.
Any resolution has to grapple with Kosovo's nearly complete division along ethnic lines, a rupture that goes back to June 1999, the month the Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces who were accused of committing atrocities against Albanians were forced by NATO troops to withdraw. As the soldiers left, the returning ethnic Albanian refugees sought revenge on their Serb neighbors, and forced up to 200,000 to flee.
Those Serbs that stayed in Kosovo - their numbers are seasonal and fluctuate between 70,000 and 130,000 according to local aid agencies - have led volatile lives.
Ethnic violence, which can dissipate for months on end, often reappears without warning. In March last year, 50,000 Albanians rioted across the province, attacking Serbs and other minorities and forcing 4,000 from their homes. Few Serbs remain in Kosovo's cities, with the exception of Mitrovica, which is divided down the middle along ethnic lines. Instead, most Serbs live in rural enclaves like Gracanica, the largest such enclave with a population of 5,000, just two miles south of Pristina.
Gracanica, like most Serbian villages across Kosovo, retains links with the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Serbia provides such basic services as health and education, and some documentation, like passports and birth and marriage certificates, services that rankle Albanians who regard the United Nations and their regional government as the only rightful authorities in the province.
"We live in two separate worlds," said Sasa Sekulic, a Serbian business owner in Gracanica. Forced to leave his home in Pristina by ethnic Albanian looters, Mr. Sekulic set up a small business making candy. He planned to sell it in Kosovo, but while Albanians are happy to sell him the ingredients, Albanian shops refused to stock his products after a television news show disclosed they were made in Gracanica.
Without the international community there to protect them, he said, most Serbs do not see a future in a Kosovo dominated by Albanians.
"You won't find us here," he said. "We don't want to live in an independent Kosovo."
Talks on Kosovo's final status are seen as inevitable, though. United Nations and NATO officials have concluded that the longer negotiations are put off, the higher the risk for more unrest.
The report on whether talks go ahead was commissioned by Secretary General Kofi Annan, and is being undertaken by the Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide. Mr. Annan is expected to make a recommendation to the Security Council next month.
Many Albanians see Kosovo's independence as a foregone conclusion, and one in which the Serbian government in Belgrade should have no say. Graffiti sprayed on the walls of the United Nations administrative headquarters in Pristina and elsewhere across the capital reflect that view. The slogan reads simply, "No negotiation, self-determination."
While the Albanian-dominated government is aware of the necessity of reassuring the Serbs, critics outside of Serbia and even some local politicians say government officials have been reluctant to turn their words into deeds.
"I think Kosovo's institutions are obliged to guarantee a good life the for the Serbs of Kosovo, to create the space for them to lead a better life," said Xhavit Haliti, the former guerrilla fighter, now a politician. "That is not happening." NY Times