Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Ethnic Albanian Leaders Insist On Independence For Kosovo

PRISTINA (AP)--Ethnic Albanian leaders told the chief U.N. negotiator Tuesday they won't back down from their demands for full independence for Kosovo, even as they prepare for crucial talks on the province's political future.

The leaders presented Martti Ahtisaari with a document outlining their positions ahead of the status negotiations, setting independence as the ultimate goal but also outlining their willingness to cooperate with the international community and eventually join the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Kosovo, legally part of Serbia-Montenegro, has been administered by the U.N. since 1999, when NATO's aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia halted a Serb military crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in the province.

Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, is mediating between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, which wants independence, and the Serb minority, which insists the province remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia. About 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, in a population of about 2 million people.

"I insist on the direct recognition of Kosovo's independence that will calm down the region," Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova said after Tuesday's meeting. "The time has come to wrap up this business."

The talks are likely to increase tensions in the deeply polarized region and there are fears extremists could try to disrupt the U.N.-sponsored process.

The meeting, held in Rugova's residence, was also attended by Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi, two opposition leaders and the parliamentary speaker.

The document presented to Ahtisaari also speaks of securing guarantees for minority rights and reforming local government in order to guarantee minorities can have a say over their affairs, Rugova said.

Ahtisaari, who is to end his visit to Kosovo on Wednesday, is also scheduled to meet Serb religious leaders in the province later Tuesday at the 14th century Orthodox monastery in Decani, a World Heritage Site and one of the best preserved Serb religious monuments.

He also plans to travel to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and neighboring Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro in the coming days.

Ahtisaari, appointed by the U.N. earlier this month, has been tasked to mediate the process that is expected to close the final chapter on the ethnic and sectarian wars that shook the region following the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

So far, no timeline has been set for the talks. Ahtisaari will set up an office in Vienna by January to administer the peace process, which will involve shuttle diplomacy between Pristina and Belgrade, before he attempts to bring the two sides together around the same table.

A handful of protesters from an ethnic Albanian youth group opposed to the talks with Serbia spilled fake blood outside the entrance of Rugova's residence and surrounded it with yellow "crime scene" tape, implying that a crime was taking place by negotiating Kosovo's future.

The red paint was meant to represent the blood of the ethnic Albanians who died in the 1998-99 war with Serbia.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

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