UNITED NATIONS, Nov 1 (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has chosen former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari to lead negotiations on the future of Serbia's disputed Kosovo province, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
The U.N. Security Council gave the green light to negotiations on Kosovo's future status on Oct. 24 following warnings from Washington and Brussels that the status quo -- characterized by latent violence, economic stagnation and widespread frustration -- was no longer sustainable.
Western powers have refused to commit publicly to any particular solution, but diplomats say they will push for the creation of a separate state under continued international supervision and backed by an extended NATO peace force.
Annan announced Ahtisaari's appointment in a letter to the 15-nation Security Council which added that Albert Rohan, a former secretary-general of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, would serve as Ahtisaari's deputy.
U.N. officials in Pristina said Ahtisaari, who returns to Balkan peacekeeping after six years, would most likely set up base in Vienna and was expected in Kosovo later this month.
Ahtisaari was the European Union envoy who delivered terms to Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 when the Serbian president, under the pressure of 11 weeks of NATO bombing, withdrew his forces from the majority Albanian province following the failure of months of shuttle diplomacy and top-level peace talks.
The humanitarian intervention was intended to halt the killing and ethnic cleansing of Albanian civilians by Serb troops locked in a two-year conflict with separatist rebels.
Still legally part of Serbia but administered by the United Nations, Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians -- 90 percent of the population -- are demanding independence.
Serbs, however, see the mountain-ringed province with its scores of centuries-old Orthodox religious sites as the cradle of their nation and say it must remain a part of Serbia.
Diplomats say Ahtisaari, who this year helped negotiate an end to 30 years of armed conflict in the Indonesian region of Aceh, will push for a deal on Kosovo status by mid-2006.
The job description set out by Annan says that it was up to Ahtisaari to set the pace of the talks. "The special envoy will have maximum leeway in order to undertake his task, but is expected to revert to the secretary-general at all stages of the process," it said.