PRESEVO, Serbia and Montenegro, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Albanians in Serbia's restive south on Saturday demanded devolution from Belgrade and the withdrawal of Serbian troops in a move seen as posturing ahead of talks on the future of Kosovo.
A 6-month ethnic Albanian insurgency in the Presevo Valley ended in 2001 in a NATO-backed deal giving Albanians greater rights. But dissatisfaction is widespread and locals say the Serbian government remains indifferent to the lack of jobs or economic development.
Albanians in the region are now trying to press their case by positioning themselves as a third party in U.N.-led talks on Kosovo, the province west of Presevo where the 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority wants independence from Serbia.
But diplomats say the strategy has won little support among Western powers content to grapple this year with Kosovo, run by the United Nations since NATO bombing forced the pullout of Serb forces in 1999.
A declaration adopted by three mainly Albanian municipalities in southern Serbia called for the region to be granted special status, with control over courts, police, schools and economic development.
They demanded the right to use Albanian as an official language in public bodies and to display the Albanian flag.
"At a time when Kosovo is entering its most significant phase ... Albanians in the Presevo Valley see the need to take concrete and coordinated steps to resolve the question of Albanians in this region," the declaration said.
It demanded "special ties" with Kosovo and warned that should Serbia try to partition the province and snatch the mainly Serb north, Presevo would join Kosovo -- something the West says is impossible.
Kosovo's Western backers are confident tension in the Presevo Valley will remain in check as U.N.-led negotiations on Kosovo's "final status" climax, probably in late 2006.
Legally part of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of the "ethnic cleansing" of Albanian civilians in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas.
A senior Western official said Kosovo's Albanian leaders had been warned against stoking tensions among their ethnic kin in Presevo. "I think they'll accept that what we're discussing here is Kosovo," he told Reuters. "Serbia has to reach its own solution" for Presevo.