Monday, November 21, 2005

U.N. envoy arrives in a mission to find a status for disputed Kosovo

PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari arrived in Kosovo Monday on a fact-finding mission before crucial talks that will determine whether Kosovo becomes an independent nation or a self-governing region within Serbia.

The former Finnish president, appointed by the U.N. earlier this month, is 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 former Yugoslavia in 1991.

He will also visit the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and Kosovo's neighbors Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.

"I am happy that we have been able to come to Kosovo soon after our appointment to lead discussions and negotiations on the future status of Kosovo," Ahtisaari said after he landed in Kosovo's main airport.

After Ahtisaari entered the U.N. mission headquarters in Kosovo's capital Pristina, several Albanian protesters from a group rejecting the talks spray-painted "No negotiations" onto a blast barrier shielding the building in city's center.

"We cannot negotiate our freedom with anyone," said Albin Kurti, leader of the group calling itself "Self-determination."

During his stay, Ahtisaari will also hold talks with the ethnic Albanian negotiating team.

With no set timeline for the talks, but with an understanding that the process cannot be further delayed, the 68-year-old envoy faces a difficult task -- the two former foes have diametrically opposing views on what the future should hold for Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians seek independence for the province, while Belgrade wants the region of 2 million people formally to remain part of Serbia.

Ethnic Albanians account for 90 percent of Kosovo's population. About 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo.

The upcoming 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.

Ahtisaari, however, is no stranger to the dispute. In 1999, he negotiated a deal with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that ended the NATO bombing of Serb forces -- a campaign aimed at stopping the crackdown on the ethnic Albanians.

That deal put Kosovo under U.N. administration, backed up by a 17,500-strong NATO-led force.

Ahtisaari also has acted as a U.N. peace broker in Namibia, and earlier this year he mediated talks between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels in Aceh province that ended one of the longest wars in modern history.

Ahtisaari has said he will set up an office in Vienna by January to administer the peace process, which will involve shuttle diplomacy between Pristina and Belgrade.

In a related development, Serbia's parliament passed a resolution Monday rejecting independence for Kosovo. The document says that "any imposed solution will be considered illegitimate and unacceptable" by Belgrade.

The resolution leaves open the possibility that a national referendum be held in Serbia to approve the outcome of negotiations on the breakaway province. The resolution was backed with 205 votes in the 250-member assembly.

Kosovo Albanian lawmakers last Thursday approved their own resolution stating that they will accept nothing less than independence in the talks, which are to start next month.

"Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said as he outlined the resolution in the parliament Monday. "Serbia is ready for a compromise, but it firmly rejects the severance of a part of its territory," Kostunica said.


Associated Press correspondent Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade.

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