PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, Feb 6 (Reuters) - The United Nations-run province of Kosovo can win independence from Serbia in negotiations this year if it shows enough democratic maturity, a senior British diplomat said on Monday.
"The more the leaders of Kosovo can reach out to the other communities and show that Kosovo is a mature democracy, the more fully an independence can be delivered," John Sawers, the political director of Britain's foreign office, told reporters after meeting Kosovo Albanian leaders in the capital, Pristina.
The comments are in line with what diplomats have been saying in private for months -- that a form of conditional independence for Serbia's southern province is almost certain, provided the Albanian majority makes concessions to minority Serbs and accepts some continued international supervision.
The first round of face-to-face negotiations between Serbian and Kosovo Albanian officials is due to take place in Vienna later this month, having been delayed for several weeks by the death of Kosovo president Ibrahim Rugova on Jan. 21.
Legally part of Serbia, the province of 2 million people became a U.N. protectorate in 1999, when NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas.
Serbia officially opposes independence but 90 percent of the population are ethnic Albanians, who demand nothing less than their own state after years of discrimination and violent repression.
Fearful of fresh ethnic violence, the U.N. Security Council last November launched a mediation process led by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari to decide Kosovo's "final status."
The Contact Group of major powers -- the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Russia -- issued a statement in London last week saying a deal should be on the table within the year.
The statement urged Serbia to "bear in mind that the settlement needs ... to be acceptable to the people of Kosovo."
Sawers said it was up to Kosovo's leaders to secure their goal. "The more Kosovo's leaders can work together, the more they can understand each others issues, each others concerns, the more fully the goal of the people of Kosovo can be achieved and the quicker it will be achieved," he said.
The comments were unlikely to go down well in Belgrade, where Sawers is due to meet Serbian leaders on Tuesday.