Martti Ahtisaari, special U.N. envoy on Kosovo future status, said Friday he hopes the first direct talks between leaders of Serbia and of the Kosovo Albanians could be organized at the beginning of next year.
At a press conference in Belgrade ending his two-day visit after talks with top Serbian leaders, Ahtisaari said his headquarters in Vienna would be fully operational at the beginning of next year.
''Hopefully in the beginning of the New Year we can get both parties together,'' Ahtisaari said.
The former president of Finland has been appointed by the United Nations as special envoy for defining the future of Kosovo, formally province of Serbia and part of the Serbia and Montenegro Union, but for the last over six years under the U.N. administration and control of some 17,500-strong NATO-led troops.
Ahtisari and his team have a rather difficult task in mediating between the extreme demands of the majority Albanians on Kosovo, will accept nothing less than full independence and even hinting possible renewed armed actions, and the Serbs insisting that the sovereignty over the province should remain intact.
The envoy on his first fact-finding mission in the region since he was appointed by the United Nations said that he was satisfied with the talks he had so far in Pristine and Belgrade. He added he had collected a lot of information which was a ''good basis'' to follow up the mission.
Ahead of the current trip, the U.N. envoy had asked all the involved parties to present their positions on the future of Kosovo in written form.
Just before his arrival in the region the ethnic Albanian-dominated Parliament of Kosovo approved a resolution insisting on secession of the province and its complete independence.
The Serbian Parliament responded with a resolution asking Kosovo to remain part of Serbia, with a possibility of getting the highest autonomy. Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic explained the concept would mean all the powers for Kosovo to be concentrated in Pristine and the province to be deprived only from having a seat in the United Nations and having foreign minister.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led KFOR troops were deployed on Kosovo and the province was put under U.N. rule in mid-1999after the ethnic Albanian rebellion and the fierce clashes with Belgrade forces which led to a humanitarian crisis in the province.
Kosovo has a population of roughly 2 million people, presumably 90 percent of that ethnic Albanians. However, over 250,000 inhabitants, most of them Serbs, fled from the province in the past several years mainly to Serbia proper.
From Belgrade, Ahtisaari is continuing his tour to Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia.