Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Kosovo Albanians give UN envoy independence plans

PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro (AFP) - Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders called for international "goodwill" after giving UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari their plans for making the province independent of Serbia.

Ahtisaari, who arrived in Kosovo on Monday, met the five-member team that will represent ethnic Albanians in the delicate talks on Kosovo's future status, including President Ibrahim Rugova and Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi.

The negotiations are set to determine whether Kosovo can break away from Belgrade, as demanded by its Albanian majority, or will remain within Serbia, whose people consider the province the birthplace of their civilisation.

"Our delegation presented Mr. Ahtisaari with a document on our plans for independence," Kosovo President Rugova told reporters after the meeting. "We expect goodwill from Mr. Ahtisaari and the international community over the question of Kosovo."

Earlier during the meeting, a group of up to 30 protestors from the Albanian pressure group Self-Determination staged a demonstration near Rugova's heavily guarded home in the provincial capital Pristina, where the gathering was being held.

The group, which opposes any negotiations with Serbia over Kosovo's future status, daubed blood-red paint and wrote "crime scene" on two maps they drew on either side of the residence in suburban Velanija.

The images were apparently meant to symbolise alleged atrocities committed by forces of then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic during the province's 1998-99 war.

Milosevic is on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity and violations of war customs for his part in the conflict.

The conflict between the Belgrade-controlled forces and Albanian separatist guerrillas was brought to an end six and a half years ago by a 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Serbian military positions and infrastructure.

Later Tuesday, Ahtisaari is to meet with the province's Serbian Orthodox Church leaders, who will, according to Serbian media, call on the UN envoy to resolve Kosovo's status in line with international law.

They are also expected to demand special protection of ancient Orthodox churches and monasteries in the province, many of which have been damaged by Albanian extremists since NATO entered the territory in June 1999.

In March 2004, dozens of Kosovo's churches were attacked during three days of violence in which 19 people were killed, nearly 900 were injured and an estimated 4,500 -- mostly Serbs -- were forced from their homes.

On Monday, Ahtisaari met with Kosovo's UN administrator Soren Jessen-Petersen and Giuseppe Valotto, who heads the NATO-led forces that have kept the peace in the province since June 1999.

"I am delighted we are here so soon after my appointment to lead the talks on Kosovo's future status," Ahtisaari told reporters after landing at Pristina airport along with his assistant, Austrian diplomat Albert Rohan.

Kosovo newspapers said Tuesday the initial negotiations -- expected to be held in the form of shuttle diplomacy between Pristina, Belgrade and other Balkan cities -- would last at least a month.

After the first phase, Ahtisaari was expected to arrange a direct meeting between Kosovo Albanian and Serbian leaders, likely in Vienna at the beginning of next year, media reports in Pristina said.

Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, was appointed to head the talks on Kosovo's future status on November 1. It is the 68-year-old's second mission concerning Kosovo after he helped to convince Milosevic to withdraw Serbian forces from the province in June 1999.

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