(Adds comments form U.S. ambassador, more comments from Serbian president.)
UNITED NATIONS (AP)--Serbia's president on Tuesday suggested imposing a 20- year grace period before determining Kosovo's final status, an idea that was swiftly rejected by the tiny province's prime minister.
The leaders' disagreement, expressed as they gathered for a U.N. Security Council discussion of Kosovo, underscored just how far apart the two sides remain ahead of U.N.-backed talks set to begin Feb. 20 on the province's future status.
Speaking before the council, Serbian President Boris Tadic reiterated his government's opposition to Kosovo independence and again offered the province wide autonomy instead. Kosovo's status could be re-negotiated "after an agreed period of time, say 20 years," he said.
He also added a wrinkle: If Kosovo is to gain autonomy from Serbia, then the Serbian minority there should gain autonomy from the Kosovo government.
Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi, the first Kosovo leader to ever appear in the council, told reporters afterward that Tadic's ideas were unacceptable.
"I believe that this is the appropriate moment where we have to end and close the Kosovo question," Kosumi said. "I do not think that we should leave room for other periods to deal with the Kosovo question."
The council debate and the two leaders' remarks exposed the problem that each side and their U.N.-appointed mediators know well, with the talks just days away. Kosovo wants total independence from Serbia, while Serbia refuses to countenance that possibility.
Tadic himself acknowledged the difficulty when he told the council that Kosovo and the Serbs favor "two seemingly irreconcilable options."
The U.N. has administered Kosovo since NATO's 1999 air war against Yugoslavia. The NATO bombardment forced former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end a crackdown on rebel ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and relinquish control over the region.
Tadic warned that independence for Kosovo could have disastrous results because it might spur other territories to break away. But several council members stressed that the key was making sure Kosovo's people - who are 90% ethnic Albanian - approve of the final decision.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton tacitly rejected Tadic's warning, saying that Kosovo was "a very special case" because of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing, and the fact that it had been under U.N. administration for so long.
"We must be realistic about possible outcomes," Bolton said. "Independence is a possible outcome. Any status outcome must be acceptable to the people of Kosovo."
As well as hearing Tadic's views, council members discussed a report from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, released two weeks ago, that said Kosovo had made little progress in efforts to create a multiethnic and democratic society.
When it took over control of Kosovo, the U.N. set eight benchmarks it had to reach for final status talks to begin. They include establishing democratic institutions, protecting minorities, promoting economic development and ensuring the rule of law, freedom of movement and property rights.
Even though many of those benchmarks haven't been met, the Security Council agreed last year to allow the talks, which begin in Vienna next week. They said the region simply couldn't remain under U.N. authority forever.
Council members were blunt about their dissatisfaction with Kosovo's development, and spread blame between both sides.
"Understandably, the overall impression one comes away with is disappointment, " Greece's U.N. Ambassador Adamantios Vassilakis said.
The top U.N. official in Kosovo, Soren Jessen-Petersen, said that even though the talks were going ahead, it was still essential for Kosovo to reach the benchmarks set out by the council.
"The message is clear: The sooner and the faster that we institute in Kosovo implemented standards, the sooner we will have a decision on the status in Kosovo," Petersen told reporters.