UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. Security Council on Monday embraced U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recommendation that international talks be launched to decide whether Kosovo gains independence or remains a Serb province.
"The council offers its full support to this political process, which would determine Kosovo's future status, and further reaffirms its commitment to the objective of a multiethnic and democratic Kosovo which must reinforce regional stability," said a statement adopted unanimously by the 15-nation council.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in anticipation of the council statement, said he would name a special envoy this week to lead the talks and added it was likely to be former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, as expected.
Before the council vote, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica warned it that Belgrade ruled out a process that could result in Kosovo's becoming a nation.
In a letter, however, Kosovo's prime minister, Bajram Kosumi, told the council that Kosovo's government in Pristina and the vast majority of its people felt the province should be granted independence.
In an apparent shift from past insistence on a complete break with the past, however, Kosumi added that Kosovo would welcome "the continued presence and involvement of the international community in our development."
In an interview with Reuters in Pristina, Kosumi said he expected an international "observation or advisory" mission after talks as "a psychological and practical guarantee for ethnic groups that their rights are observed."
The southern Serb province bordering Macedonia and Albania has been administered by the United Nations since Serb forces, accused of ethnic cleansing in a war with separatist guerrillas, were ousted by NATO in 1999.
Three months of NATO bombing that year forced Serbia's then leader, Slobodan Milosevic -- now on trial in an international tribunal in The Hague on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes -- to withdraw his forces.
Some 10,000 ethnic Albanian civilians died and 800,000 were expelled into neighboring Albania and Macedonia.
ALBANIANS IMPATIENT FOR INDEPENDENCE
More than six years later, Kosovo Albanians are impatient for the independence they thought they had won in 1999. Most are fed up with a U.N. administration perceived as overbearing and unable to revive an economy crippled by war and neglect.
But March 2004 Albanian mob riots against Kosovo Serbs killed 19 people and destroyed hundreds of homes, undermining Kosovo leaders' stated commitment to a multiethnic
Diplomats say the West, though publicly refusing to back any particular solution, is preparing to push for "conditional independence" in talks that could last until spring 2006.
The West has all but written off Serbia's offer of broad autonomy as unworkable as the province's 90-percent Albanian majority flatly reject any return to Serb control, they say.
Kosumi's letter said Kosovo's final status "should be that of an independent state with the borders of Kosovo as they currently stand with neither partition nor cantonization."
Kosovo should be "a multiethnic, democratic and law-abiding place, which exists in peace and cooperation with its neighbors in the region and with the wider world," Kosumi said. "Within this broader vision, we are ready to elaborate more precise details of how Kosovo should be organized in both its institutions and its constitution."
Serbian premier Kostunica, however, called on the council to ensure Kosovo remained part of Serbia.
"I am convinced that the international community, embodied in the United Nations, will not succumb to threats of violence and permit a dismemberment of a democratic state and the undermining of the most basic principles of the international order," he said.
"I am convinced ... that no democratic and free state could accept this under any circumstances," Kostunica said.
Two key U.N. envoys, also appearing before the council, acknowledged Serbs and Kosovars were deeply divided over what the eventual fate of the southern Serb province should be. But they argued that resolving the issue would ultimately benefit both sides and bring more stability to the region.
"We all know that the positions of Belgrade and Pristina on the issue of Kosovo's status are far apart, but it will remain so until and unless it is resolved by an internationally managed process, and the sooner that is done, the better for the citizens in Kosovo and in the region," said Soren Jessen-Petersen, the province's U.N. administrator.
U.N. special envoy Kai Eide said he believed there had been a change in the region and Pristina and Belgrade now had a "shared expectation" that the status talks would begin.
"I am convinced that all will benefit from clarity with regard to what Kosovo will be," he said. "Such clarity will also remove an element of instability, which today hampers the political and economic development of Kosovo as well as of the region."