By Matthew Robinson
VIENNA (Reuters) - Serbs and Kosovo Albanians meet in Vienna on Monday for the first round of direct negotiations to decide the fate of Serbia's disputed southern province, with almost all signs pointing to independence.
Two eight-member delegations of mid-level politicians and advisers come together in the 18th century Palais Daun-Kinsky under the chairmanship of Austria's Albert Rohan, deputy to United Nations envoy Martti Ahtisaari.
The talks, delayed a month by the death of president Ibrahim Rugova, is the first since Ahtisaari was appointed in November to broker a deal on Kosovo, sacred land to Serbs but 90-percent populated by Albanians who demand independence.
Diplomats say independence is almost certain, despite Serbia's refusal to consider such an outcome. A deal would close a chapter in one of Europe's most pressing diplomatic conundrums.
The province of two 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 two-year war with separatist rebels.
Neither side has given much ground since then.
Trying to break the ice, the meeting will skirt the hot issue of status and focus on how to devolve power to the 100,000 remaining Serbs, ghettoised and targeted for revenge. Western diplomats have stressed independence hinges on 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," Kosovo's 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."
The Contact Group of major powers setting policy on Kosovo says it wants a deal on "final status" within the year.
Belgrade insists independence is unthinkable. Rich in Orthodox religious heritage, Kosovo holds almost mythic status for Serbs, central to their identity for 1,000 years.
But practically self-governing since 1999, Albanians say independence is non-negotiable after a decade of Serb repression in the 1990s.
The Contact Group has urged Belgrade "to bear in mind that the settlement needs to be acceptable to the people of Kosovo."
Western diplomats say this means independence, conditional on major concessions to Serbs and guaranteed by an EU-led supervisory body and extended NATO peacekeeping mandate.
(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza in Pristina)