PRISTINA (AP)--Western powers and the U.N. should offer autonomy to Serbs living in northern Kosovo to avoid the partition of this disputed province along ethnic lines, a report said Tuesday.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, cautioned that partition of Kosovo could force more people in Kosovo to leave their homes and provoke instability elsewhere in the Balkans, especially in neighboring Macedonia.
Instead the international overseers of this disputed province should delegate more powers to the dwindling minority in the North, turning it into "the hub of an effort to provide services for all Kosovo's Serbs," the ICG said.
"The Serb north should be offered the substance of autonomy, including devolved powers for municipalities, freedom for municipalities to associate on a voluntary basis, and the coordination and resource role made possible through the proposed Serb units of Kosovo's government ministries," said the report.
The report focuses primarily on the northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica that is divided between a Serb-dominated north and an ethnic Albanian south and where one-third of the province's remaining Serbs are believed to live.
The town, 45 kilometers north of Pristina and bisected by the river Ibar, has been the scene of violent clashes in the past and has come to epitomize the prevailing ethnic divide between its communities.
Earlier this year a group of senior international envoys laid out three guidelines that should be adhered to when the province enters talks on its future later this year. They ruled out a return to the situation before 1999, when it was under direct Serb rule.
They also ruled out the province being partitioned along ethnic Albanian and Serbian lines and the creation of any new union between predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo and other countries in the region, such as Albania.
But ICG said that the "no-partition dictum is, unfortunately, not self- executing."
"(This) declaration has not been followed by sufficient action," the group warned.
Kosovo has been under U.N. administration and patrolled by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since the alliance's 1999 air war that stopped a Serb crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians. The province's ethnic Albanian majority wants independence, while its Serb minority wants it to remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia.
Tens of thousands of Serbs and other minorities fled Kosovo following revenge attacks by ethnic Albanian extremists after the 1999 conflict and others remain living in NATO-patrolled enclaves scattered around the province.
Talks to determine the province's status are likely to start by the end the year.