Friday, November 11, 2005

Ahtisaari: no set timeline on Kosovo talks, EU's role vital in negotiations

HELSINKI, Finland (AP) - The U.N.'s newly appointed envoy to lead talks on Kosovo's future status on Friday declined to set a timeline for the negotiations and stressed the role of the European Union in the disputed Balkan region.

Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish President who will oversee the talks, said he plans to visit the region at the end of this month "to listen to the parties and collect impressions."

Ahtisaari told reporters in Helsinki it would be "totally irresponsible" for him set a timeline for the negotiations. "It's pretty much the parties that will decide how fast or slowly we will move," he said.

However, he said "everybody understands that this sort of situation we have at the moment cannot continue forever."

Ahtisaari faces a difficult task as Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians want independence, while Serbia wants to retain some formal control over the province. The United Nations has administered Kosovo since NATO's 1999 air war against Yugoslavia, launched to halt a crackdown by government troops against separatist ethnic Albanian rebels.

Serbia-Montenegro Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic acknowledged that Serbia must be "realistic" about Kosovo's future, but said Belgrade will oppose independence for the province during the negotiations.

It is a "harsh reality" that Serbia has had no authority over its southern province since 1999, Draskovic said. "But if we are wise and realistic, we could wrap up the talks successfully."

On the other side, Albania's parliament issued a resolution Friday saying it hoped the negotiations would end in independence for Kosovo.

"(Parliament) strongly believes that a stable result would come out of the negotiating process reflecting the aspirations and the free will of the Kosovo citizens for an independent, democratic and European state," the resolution said.

In Helsinki, Ahtisaari said the talks will involve a contact group with representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States, and stressed that the EU has a key role to play in reaching a solution.

The 25-nation bloc "is an important partner in this exercise because (the) EU is a major donor and political stake holder in Balkans in general and in Kosovo in particular," Ahtisaari said.

Earlier this week, the EU appointed one of its top Balkan specialists, Stefan Lehne, as its representative for the negotiations. The Austrian currently serves as director for southeastern Europe in the secretariat of the EU's council and is a senior adviser to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Ahtisaari said he will start on working on his assignment immediately by setting up office in Vienna, from where the mission will be administrated, and then visiting the Balkan region, including Kosovo, Serbia, Albania and Macedonia.

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