By Matthew Robinson
VIENNA (Reuters) - Serbs and ethnic Albanians eased their way into direct negotiations on Monday that ultimately will lead to a decision on whether Kosovo gets independence or remains part of Serbia.
"It went well," an official close to the United Nations-chaired meeting told Reuters as delegates left the Vienna venue. "There were disagreements, but they were to be expected. Everyone was very frank, but constructive."
All signs are that the major powers will steer the talks towards independence for the province which is legally part of Serbia, but has a 90-percent ethnic Albanian population.
The 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.
Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed and up to 800,000 driven from their homes. The Albanians insist independence is non-negotiable, but Serbs regard Kosovo as sacred land.
"There's no blood on the floor and they're still in the room," the official said during an earlier break, reflecting the relief felt at finally getting the two sides at the same table. The talks are expected to last into late this year.
The first round, due to close on Tuesday, focuses on practical issues regarding Kosovo's remaining Serb minority of 100,000, ghettoised and targeted for revenge since the war. Thousands of their kin fled a wave of revenge attacks that followed NATO's deployment in 1999. Few have returned.
The two 8-member teams of mid-level politicians and advisers 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," Kosovo Albanian delegation chief Lutfi Haziri said on arrival. "Independence is coming and we are playing a positive role."
"NOT A SINGLE SERB WILL REMAIN"
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.
Back in Kosovo, Albanian activists angry at having to negotiate with Serbia handed out "wanted posters" for the province's leaders, saying they were "trading with the lives of 2 million people without asking".
Rich in Orthodox religious heritage, Kosovo has been central to Serb history and identity for 1,000 years.
Kosovo Serbs rallied to urge their negotiating team in Vienna to "defend Serbia and protect its territory." Rally organiser Zivorad Tomic said: "If Kosovo gets independence, not a single Serb will remain on this land".
(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza in Pristina)