UNITED NATIONS (AP) - U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended Friday that talks on Kosovo's future go ahead despite corruption and pervasive ethnic tension, a critical step toward resolving the fate of a province run by the United Nations since NATO's 1999 air war.
Annan's recommendation to the U.N. Security Council was delivered with a report that said enough progress had been made in creating the institutions to make a government work in Kosovo. Europe and the United States must not allow the tiny region to stagnate or fade from international attention, the report said.
"I think we did provide a political momentum and I think it will be very unwise to stop that political momentum," the report's author, Kai Eide of Norway, said in a phone interview from London.
The Security Council was likely to discuss Eide's report when it considers Kosovo on Oct. 24, and talks could start as early as next month, after Annan appoints a special representative to oversee the process.
Kosovo has been run by a U.N. mission -- with a strong NATO peacekeeping presence -- since mid-1999, when a NATO air war forced former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end a crackdown against rebel ethnic Albanians in the province.
The province has seen continued unrest: In March 2004, thousands of ethnic Albanians attacked Serbs and their property in violence that killed 19 people and injured more than 900.
Diplomats have argued that only a lasting peace will create the political certainty demanded by investors and donors -- the outsiders who can provide the cash needed to restart a hobbled economy and rebuild Kosovo's tattered infrastructure.
"The question of independence has been raised, the question of autonomy has been raised," Annan told reporters in the Swiss capital, Bern. "It is important that the discussion begins soon."
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official said Kosovo's uncertain political status "is no longer sustainable."
The issue of Kosovo's fate is highly contentious because the province's majority ethnic Albanians want full independence, but the Serb minority insists that Kosovo remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia.
The United Nations had said that for the talks to take place, Kosovo must meet eight benchmarks. They include establishing democratic institutions, protecting minorities, promoting economic development and ensuring the rule of law, freedom of movement and property rights.
Yet tension remains high between ethnic Albanians and Serbs who live in their own enclaves and depend on Serbian government funding for health and education. Political appointments are doled out according to political and ethnic ties, and Serbs have little opportunity, or desire, to participate in the region's government.
Property rights of Serbs who fled after the NATO bombing have been ignored, while corruption is rife.
"Over the past six years, international police, prosecutors and intelligence officials have tried -- but failed -- to go much beyond the surface of the corruption problem," the report said.