BELGRADE/BERNE (Reuters) - U.N Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he would recommend to the Security Council later on Friday that talks on the future status of the disputed Serbian province of Kosovo should begin "very soon".
"Today I will inform the Security Council that I want to open discussions about the status of Kosovo very soon," he told journalists during a visit to the Swiss capital.
In Belgrade, Kosovo's U.N. governor Soren Jessen-Petersen said the talks would be "before the end of the year".
Kosovo has been under U.N. administration, and the protection of NATO's biggest peacekeeping operation, since mid-1999 when Serbian forces were driven out to stop what the West said was their persecution of the ethnic Albanian majority during an uprising by Albanian guerrillas.
Some 10,000 Albanians were killed between 1998 and 1999.
The Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the two million population, demand full independence from Serbia, which says they cannot have it. Diplomats said the major powers are leaning towards a form of "conditional independence" under the supervision of the European Union.
Annan's recommendation will go to the 15-member Security Council, which would then vote on the issue later this month, possibly October 24, according to diplomatic sources.
His recommendation is based on a report by Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide into Kosovo's progress on meeting standards of democracy and minority rights. Serbia says they are far from being met.
Diplomats say the Eide report criticises a lack of progress in improving the lot of 100,000 Kosovo Serbs, half of whom live in NATO-protected enclaves, but will reflect Western concern at prolonging Kosovo's economic and political limbo much longer.
BELGRADE WON'T LIKE IT
Signalling that Serbia is ready to cry 'foul' if talks are launched by the Security Council later this month, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told the U.N. governor that standards were "a key precondition" for talks, his office said.
Kostunica said Serbs in Kosovo were denied basic human rights such as safety, free movement, the right of the displaced to return to their homes and the protection of their heritage.
"Standards before status" had been the routine reply to Albanian demands for independence until March 2004, when mass rioting swept the country and 19 people were killed in a wave of arson directed against Serbs and other minorities.
Kostunica has said "tacitly abandoning" that rule is simply giving in to the implicit Albanian threat of further violence if the majority does not get its way.
Jessen-Petersen, who has called the current situation is "unsustainable", said the status negotiations would shuttle between Pristina and Belgrade. Diplomatic sources say the final sessions could take place in Vienna.
"Status talks will be very much conducted through shuttle diplomacy by a (United Nations) status envoy," the Danish diplomat said. The most frequently mentioned candidate for the job is former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.
"My job now is to make sure that we stay focussed on the agenda," the U.N. governor said. That would include more local rights for Serbs and preparing for "a post-status Kosovo".
"Because there will come a day ... when, of course, UNMIK (the U.N. mission) will no longer be there, but it must be an orderly transition," Jessen-Petersen said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said earlier this month that the EU should consider taking over some of the U.N. mission's duties, including law enforcement. But the NATO-led peacekeeping mission KFOR is expected to stay on.
(Additional reporting by Beti Bilandzic in Belgrade and Matthew Robinson in Pristina)