By Matthew Robinson
PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro (Reuters) - The United States warned on Thursday against the use of violence as negotiations on the future of Serbia's disputed province of Kosovo near, saying its people had a unique opportunity to define their own future.
"We implore the parties to these negotiations not to use intimidation or the threat of violence, or violence itself as a tactic in the negotiations," U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said in the Kosovo capital Pristina.
He said the end of 2005 and the first months of 2006 would be a period of "great chance" for the province, where the ethnic Albanian majority wants independence after six years as a de facto United Nations protectorate.
"There is a historic opportunity for the people of Kosovo now to define their own future," Burns told reporters.
His comments are certain to cause concern in Belgrade, which hopes to retain Kosovo within Serbia's borders despite the will of 1.9 million ethnic Albanians -- 90 percent of the population -- to secede.
Legally part of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of brutal atrocities against civilians in a war with separatist guerrillas.
Frozen in international limbo since, Kosovo was thrust back on to the international agenda when riots erupted in March 2004, killing 19 people.
Ethnic Albanian mobs torched Serb homes and churches in a two-day orgy of violence that exposed 17,000 NATO-led peacekeepers as slow and ineffective.
"We remember what happened in March 2004," Burns said. "There is no place for that in U.N.-sponsored negotiations."
Serbia opposes independence for its southern province, its religious heartland, and believes the West is rushing to resolve its fate for fear of a new explosion of violence.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has recommended talks begin once the Security Council gives the green light at a session on October 24.
Diplomats in Pristina say Western powers will steer the negotiations toward a form of "conditional independence" under continued international supervision and with major concessions to 100,000 minority Serbs.
Annan is expected to appoint a special envoy for status talks at the end of October, with former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari reportedly favorite for the job.
Diplomats predict negotiations will run up to spring next year, when the envoy will draft an imposed solution if the two sides cannot agree.