Saturday, October 29, 2005

Kosovo's Future Discussed At NATO Talks

ROME (AP)--Officials discussed the future of ethnically divided Kosovo at a NATO-sponsored seminar Friday attended by representatives from Serbia-Montenegro and Kosovo, with both sides favoring a plan to decentralize Kosovo's government.

The Rome conference, organized by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, was focusing on the possibility of giving the province's isolated Serb enclaves local self-rule in areas such as education, health care and economy.

The issue of decentralization was also to be discussed during upcoming U.N.-backed talks on the final status of Kosovo, which has been administered by the U.N. since NATO's 1999 air war against Yugoslavia.

The province's 90% ethnic Albanian majority wants independence, while the Belgrade-backed Serbian minority wants to remain part of Serbia.

The assembly's vice president, Giovanni Lorenzo Forcieri, urged seminar participants to use "fantasy and creative generosity" to go beyond their government's official stances.

Officials from both sides agreed that decentralization was a good idea.

"In an independent Kosovo, Serbs need to feel confident living as Kosovars," said Kosovo's minister for local government, Lutfi Haziri, during a break in the talks. "Decentralization is one of the tools by which they can benefit the most."

Kosovo's government plans to create new municipalities, and once the province's status was resolved residents could "design (the borders) of their municipalities through referendums," he said.

Serbia's government representative for Kosovo, Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, said she supported local autonomy for Serbian enclaves, which would enable "the Serbian community to survive in Kosovo."

She maintained Belgrade's position, however, that Kosovo should officially remain part of Serbian territory.

An estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed before the 1999 NATO air bombings forced then President Slobodan Milosevic to end a violent crackdown on rebel ethnic Albanians.

After the war, tens of thousands of Serbs fled the province in the face of attacks and threats from ethnic Albanian extremists. An estimated 100,000 Serbs remain out of an initial Serb population of about 250,000.

NATO's commander in Kosovo, Lt. Gen. Giuseppe Valotto, said security conditions in the province are improving.

"I consider the situation very quiet for the moment," Valotto told the conference. But he cautioned that the start of final status negotiations could heighten ethnic tensions. NATO would respond "with determination" to any violence, Valotto said.

There are about 17,500 NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo.

The U.N. Security Council this week approved plans for status talks to begin later this year. [ 28-10-05 1654GMT ]

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