PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari is the most likely candidate to lead the crucial talks on Kosovo's future later this year, officials said Wednesday.
"He is the strongest candidate," a U.N. official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Ahtisaari's possible appointment to lead the talks can come only after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan concludes that the disputed province is ready to enter talks on its future, a decision expected in few weeks, sources said.
"There is growing consensus" among European and U.S. official for Ahtisaari to lead those talks, another Western diplomat in Kosovo told the AP.
Ahtisaari was at the U.N. in New York for meetings with Annan and other officials, including a Wednesday meeting with Kosovo's U.N. administrator Soren Jessen-Petersen, the U.N. official said. The nature of those discussions was not disclosed.
Ahtisaari's assistant, Kristiina Ahovuori, said it was up to the U.N.
"He may well be the best candidate, but the United Nations will decide about opening negotiations on the status of Kosovo probably at the end of September and before that, nothing will be decided," she told the AP in the Finnish capital, Helsinki.
Ahtisaari, among the world's most famed mediators, has dealt with Kosovo in the past.
In 1999, Ahtisaari negotiated a deal with then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that put an end to the NATO bombing of Serb forces -- a campaign aimed at stopping the crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.
That deal put Kosovo under U.N. administration but left its status unresolved, with ethnic Albanians wanting independence and Serbs insisting the province remain part of Serbia-Montenegro.
He also has been involved in arms decommissioning in Northern Ireland, and recently hammered out a deal in Indonesia's Aceh province that ended fighting between government troops and the rebels.
Meanwhile, the United States, the European Union and Russia urged Kosovo's leaders to step up efforts to establish a stable multiethnic democracy, saying it was essential to any talks on the province's future status.
International officials have conditioned talks on progress on eight standards, including establishing functioning democratic institutions, protecting minorities, promoting economic development and ensuring rule of law, freedom of movement and property rights.
A statement issued by the Contact Group -- which includes the United States, the European Union, Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Germany -- said implementing the standards "is not just about getting to a status process; it must be at the heart of Kosovo's future."
The Contact Group, whose political directors met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly's ministerial meeting in New York, acknowledged "the overall forward momentum" in implementing the standards. But it agreed with U.N. envoy Kai Eide's assessment "that more progress is needed to establish in Kosovo a multiethnic, stable and democratic society founded on the rule of law."
Eide was appointed earlier this year by Annan to report on readiness of Kosovo to enter talks.
"Further progress on standard must therefore be made now and during the future status process once it is lost," the statement said.
The Contact Group said members discussed Eide's preliminary findings -- which it did not disclose -- on Tuesday and looked forward to his comprehensive review.
"Should progress be deemed sufficient, we expect the secretary-general to make appropriate preparations so that the status process could be launched before the end of 2005, and that the Security Council can endorse this launch," the statement said.