WASHINGTON (AFP) - A top State Department official on firmly linked the prospect of Serbia's entry into NATO with resolution of the fate of the mainly ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo.
Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs and the US pointman on Kosovo, said the hope of NATO membership was one of the biggest incentives for Serbia to grant the province more autonomy or independence.
He told reporters a goal of UN-sponsored talks on Kosovo "should be the emergence of a stronger, a healthier Serbia Montenegro that has the prospect of future involvement in the EU and NATO."
Burns refused to say a settlement in Kosovo, which has been run by the United Nations since a NATO bombing campaign forced Serbian troops to withdraw in 1999, was a pre-condition for Belgrade's entry into the military alliance.
But he said, "If the negotiations were not successful and if there were further turmoil in Kosovo, that would not help the aspirations of any of the countries in the region for future association with NATO and the EU."
The 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization operates by consensus and Serbia would have a tough time mustering support before the tensions over Kosovo were laid to rest, Burns said.
"I don't think anyone would take a country into NATO that had a major territorial dispute within it," he said. "I don't think there's any possibility of that happening."
Burns reiterated the US offer to support Serbian membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace cooperation program if Belgrade turned over fugitive Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic.
But he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that full NATO membership "is a much higher challenge. It requires much greater efforts. So you have to distinguish between the two."
Burns spoke after testifying before Congress on the Kosovo negotiations, which he said were "as difficult a set of talks as you can imagine." He predicted 2006 would be a crucial year for the Balkans.
Also testifying was veteran US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the 1995 Bosnian peace deal, who said that independence was the only way forward for Kosovo and its mainly Muslim Albanians.
"I cannot see any final status for Kosovo other than independence," said Holbrooke, who forged the Dayton Peace Accords that ended Bosnia's 1992-95 war.
"But at the same time ... this cannot be achieved without ironclad guarantees for the safety, security, and protection of the rights of the Serbs who live in Kosovo and the protection of their magnificent monuments," he said.
The comments came as the United Nations was set to launch talks on the final status of Kosovo, where NATO forces six years ago halted a a Serbian campaign against ethnic Albanian separatists.
Holbrooke also stressed the international community had to hold out the prospect of European Union and NATO membership to the Serbs in Belgrade to convince them to abandon their claim to Kosovo, a province that played a central role in their history.
"We have to give the Serb leadership enough incentives so that they don't appear to have given away 1,000 years of Serb tradition," Holbrooke said.
"In the end, the Serbs in Belgrade will have to choose between Brussels and Kosovo, it's as brutal as that," he added.
Holbrooke said the United States needed to maintain troops in the region as "history has shown that when Europeans go there and muck around, bad things happen."
US Senator Joseph Biden said it was important for the United States and Europe that the upcoming talks on Kosovo be successful as that would send an important message to the Muslim world.
"Pristina is one of the few Muslim cities in the world where the United States is not only respected, but revered," Biden said.
"If we get Kosovo right, Muslims around the world will be reminded how the United States came to the aid of Kosovo's Muslim population and helped them build a strong, independent, multi-ethnic democracy."