By Matthew Robinson
VIENNA (Reuters) - Serbs and ethnic Albanians eased their way into a first round of talks on Monday that will lead ultimately to a decision on whether the disputed province of Kosovo gets independence or remains part of Serbia.
"It's going pretty well," an official close to the meeting told Reuters. "There's no blood on the floor and they're still in the room. Of course, there are a few disagreements, but we expected that."
Diplomats say independence for Kosovo, whose population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, is almost certain after seven years of U.N. stewardship.
Belgrade says independence is unthinkable. Rich in Orthodox religious heritage, Kosovo has been central to Serb identity for 1,000 years.
The Serbian province of 2 million people has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of atrocities against ethnic Albanian civilians in a 2-year war with separatist rebels.
Around 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed in the war and up to 800,000 driven from their homes. Then, as Serb forces pulled out, thousands of Serbs followed, fleeing revenge attacks.
The talks, due to carry on into Tuesday, focus initially on practical issues regarding Kosovo's Serb minority of 100,000 who have been ghettoized.
The two 8-member teams sat at a horseshoe table chaired by a deputy to U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari. Delegates posed stiffly for photographs. There were no handshakes.
"We want the status resolved as soon as possible. Independence is coming and we are playing a positive role," said Kosovo Albanian delegation chief Lutfi Haziri.
Western diplomats say independence hinges on the Albanians offering Kosovo's minorities a viable future.
"The majority population here in Kosovo has a right to expect that their aspirations will be met when status is decided," U.N. governor Soren Jessen-Petersen said on Sunday.
"But it is equally important that the majority is seen to be committed ... on minority issues."
Belgrade wants an autonomous Serb entity with strong ties to Serbia. Albanians say this means partition of Kosovo, a concept ruled out by the West. They offer more modest devolution.
Major powers want a deal on "final status" within the year.
Tapping into Kosovo Albanian anger at having to negotiate with Serbia, activists in Pristina handed out "wanted posters" for the province's leaders, saying they were "trading with the lives of 2 million people without asking".
Serbs also rallied to urge their negotiating team in Vienna to "defend Serbia and protect its territory." Rally organizer Zivorad Tomic told Beta news agency: "If Kosovo gets independence, not a single Serb will remain on this land".
The West has told Belgrade that any deal must be acceptable to the people of Kosovo. Diplomats say this means independence, conditional on major concessions to Serbs and guaranteed by European Union supervision and continued NATO presence.
The Serbian government called a session of parliament for Monday, February 27 to discuss its next step.
Analysts warn of a backlash in Serbia where nationalists say the government must "declare Kosovo occupied territory" if it secedes with Western backing.
(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza in Pristina)