BELGRADE (AP)--Ethnic Albanians will not negotiate directly with Serbian officials about Kosovo's future status, the province's prime minister said in comments published Wednesday.
Bajram Kosumi made the comments in a rare interview with Belgrade newspaper Vecernije Novosti before this year's expected start to internationally sponsored talks on finding a solution for the southern province.
Kosovo was put under U.N. and NATO administration in 1999, though it formally remains part of Serbia.
"We won't even talk about Kosovo's status with Serbia," said Kosumi, an ethnic Albanian. Instead, a Kosovo delegation will talk to U.N. Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari or other foreign mediators.
Kosovo's leadership has insisted on full independence, while Belgrade wants to give it wide autonomy but have it remain within its territory.
"Kosovo has been de facto independent since June 1999 and will remain so," Kosumi was quoted as saying, referring to the month when NATO bombing forced Serbia to halt its crackdown on Kosovo' ethnic Albanian separatists.
"The international community has clearly said there won't be any return to the situation prior to 1999," Kosumi reportedly said.
Ethnic Albanians account for more than 90% of Kosovo's population. More than 200,000 Serbs fled the province in 1999, and the remaining 100,000 live mostly in enclaves occasionally targeted by ethnic Albanian militants.
Belgrade also wants Kosovo's government to be decentralized so its Serb enclaves can be governed from Serbia's capital, instead of by the ethnic Albanian leadership in Kosovo's capital, Pristina.
Kosumi insisted that even if Kosovo were decentralized to give Serb municipalities some autonomy, it should not amount to territorial division within the province.
He dismissed Belgrade's security concerns as an attempt to "manipulate" the talks.
"There are certain weaknesses, which we are aware of, and we are working to resolve that," he said.