Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Kosovo leader discusses future of contested province with U.N. mediator

VIENNA, Austria (AP) - The leader of Kosovo's largest opposition group, Hashim Thaci, said Wednesday he was optimistic about the outcome of the negotiations on the future of the contested province.

"I am very optimistic about the negotiations process, because what we stand for is something that the Kosovars want," Thaci told reporters in Vienna.

He made the remarks after meeting with the U.N. mediator on Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, with whom he had discussed the agenda of status talks set to begin Jan. 25.

The talks will focus on the decentralization of Kosovo's administration and the protection of minorities and cultural objects in the contested province.

Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people, want nothing short of full independence. They argue that Serbia lost the right to govern the province following the war that left an estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians dead.

"What we want is full independence and not autonomy," Thaci said, adding that Kosovo was not the property of Belgrade. "All people of Kosovo will benefit from independence, not just the ethnic Albanians."

Serb leaders, however, insist on keeping at least some formal control over the troubled province -- a place many Serbs consider the heart of their nation.

U.N. officials have said reforming the local government -- with a focus on the rights of Serbs and other minorities in the province -- will be a key factor in determining Kosovo's future status. They see it as a way to forestall the division of the province along ethnic lines.

Ethnic Albanian leaders insist the process is an internal matter for Kosovo and should not be a subject of negotiations with Serbia.

However, they did not oppose the possibility of a meeting to discuss the issue in Vienna.

According to Thaci, the process will start with a one-day meeting on Jan. 25, where both sides will table their positions. On Jan. 31, the foreign ministers of the Contact Group on Kosovo will meet in London with Ahtisaari.

Belgrade and the province's Serbs demand broad autonomy in areas where they constitute a majority. Kosovo's government has put forward a plan that envisages new municipalities run by Serbs, albeit in smaller units than they demanded earlier.

Ahtisaari, a former Finish president, has dealt with Kosovo in the past.

In 1999, he negotiated a deal with then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that put an end to the NATO bombing of Serb forces -- a campaign aimed at stopping the crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.

That deal put Kosovo under U.N. administration but left its status unresolved.

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