By Saul Hudson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will block Serbia from joining NATO unless it resolves a territorial dispute over volatile Kosovo, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday in what was a new U.S. demand on Belgrade.
Nicholas Burns, the No. 3 State Department official, outlined the U.S. condition to persuade Serbia to seek a settlement, even though Belgrade can only lose authority over the province if it reaches an accord.
Previously, the United States has said Serbia had to capture two high-profile war criminals before it could enter into negotiations as a first step toward membership in the transatlantic alliance.
But on Tuesday, Burns said that even if Serbia met that demand the United States would still block its entry into an organization it dominates if Belgrade does not move on Kosovo.
"I don't think anyone would take a country into NATO that had a major territorial dispute within it, in the heart of it, that had not resolved this huge question on the future of Kosovo," Burns told reporters. "I don't think there's any possibility of that happening."
The former ambassador to NATO also said the Kosovo talks should involve offering Serbia the incentive that a settlement would further its ambition of joining the European Union.
"Final status" talks to determine whether Kosovo wins either independence or greater autonomy are due to start later this month, conducted by newly appointed U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari.
Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombing forced then-President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his forces. Some 10,000 civilians were killed during his two-year crackdown on an Albanian guerrilla insurgency.
Kosovo's 90-percent Albanian majority has been clamoring for independence ever since.
Serbia, which has ambitions to eventually join NATO and the European Union, rejects independence for Kosovo but has offered far-reaching autonomy.
Whatever the outcome, NATO forces would need to stay in the province to prevent a repeat of attacks last year on Serb homes and religious sites, Burns said.
Criticized for neglecting the Balkans, the Bush administration has refocused this year on the region, with Burns leading the diplomacy.
While the United States refuses to state its preference for Kosovo's future status, a congressional hearing with Burns earlier on Tuesday focused mainly on how independence would be achieved.
Diplomats, who asked not to be named because Western governments have not announced their goals for the talks, said Washington favors a compromise that it terms "supervised independence," with an international body overseeing its treatment of the Serb minority.
"They want independence. They have to prove they are worthy of it," Burns said, adding Kosovars needed to show they would respect minority rights.
Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who negotiated peace accords in the Balkans a decade ago, said Serbia had to choose between Kosovo or membership in Western institutions.
"They will have to figure out a way of letting Kosovo go," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But he also warned independence for Kosovo would lead inevitably to the breakup of Serbia-Montenegro.
And Burns, who said he supported the idea of Montenegrins holding a referendum on becoming independent from Serbia, acknowledged the Kosovo talks could create instability in the increasingly ethnically splintered region.
"Serbia and Montenegro, the state union, may face a political crisis of sorts," he said.