Saturday, March 18, 2006

Kosovo, Serbia Talks End Without Deal; New Date Set

VIENNA (AP)--The U.N.-mediated talks between officials from Serbia and Kosovo ended without a clear deal Friday, but the two former foes pledged to meet again next month in their attempts to find a lasting solution for the province.

Ethnic Albanian and Serbian officials had "extremely constructive discussions" as the U.N.-mediators tried to find a common ground, said Albert Rohan, the U.N. mediator chairing the session.

Rohan, who is the deputy to the chief U.N. Kosovo talks mediator, acknowledged that there were profound differences between the two sides, but he characterized Friday's encounter as "issue-oriented and without polemics." The next round was set for April, 3, Rohan said.

The two delegations sat across from each other for the second round of talks in their attempts to find a lasting solution to one of the most intractable issues left since the disintegration of Yugoslavia - whether Kosovo becomes independent.

Ethnic Albanians, who comprise about 90% of the province's population of 2 million, insist on full independence. But Serbia, and Kosovo's Serb minority, insist Belgrade must retain some control over the province.

"There's not any formal agreement of any sort," Rohan said, but added that mediators "feel that there's common ground on some of the subjects" on the local government reform.

The talks have opened nearly seven years after the province became a U.N. protectorate when NATO halted the crackdown by forces of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on ethnic Albanian separatists.

The process is being mediated by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, appointed by the United Nations to steer the talks toward an agreement by the end of the year.

The one-day round of talks at Vienna's Auersperg Palace didn't deal directly with the question of the province's status.

Instead, the discussions focused on the details of local government reform to give Serbs more of a say in areas where they live, the financing of municipalities and the links between the beleaguered Serb minority and Belgrade.

"I would be probably naive to say that there was agreement on all these matters," Rohan said. "There are, of course, profound differences in the approach of the two sides."

However, Rohan noted some progress, with the sides agreeing to allowing some links between Belgrade and the municipalities where Serbs form a majority in Kosovo. The mechanisms for doing that remained contentious.

The opposing views were also made clear by both delegations.

Hashim Thaci, the leader of ethnic Albanian delegation at the talks, said, " Kosovo made one step forward to a free and democratic, independent and sovereign state."

His Serb counterpart, Leon Kojen, said the discussions were useful, but also difficult, because the two points of view on the future status of Kosovo are " very sharply opposed."

The start of talks was overshadowed by the Serbian delegation lodging a protest with U.N. mediators about Thaci, the former rebel leader whom Belgrade accuses of war crimes, heading the Kosovo team.

The letter said Thaci's active participation in the talks "will make it much harder to build mutual confidence and made genuine progress in the negotiations."

Thaci didn't comment on the Serb protest and instead insisted the province must gain independence, but also said his negotiating team will try to find common ground with the Serb delegation.

Thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced during the war, and the end of hostilities did not bring the two sides any closer to a resolution.

The two sides disagree over how much power should be held locally, with Serbian officials insisting the province's Serbs be allowed to run affairs in their communities, link up with other Serb areas and have special ties to Belgrade.

Ethnic Albanians have rejected ideas of Serb municipal clusters, which would provide direct control of the police forces and justice systems, saying that would lead to the ethnic partition of the province.

As talks developed, in Kosovo, thousands of Serbs protested at the anniversary of anti-Serb riots in 2004, when mobs of ethnic Albanians attacked them and their property in the worst outbreak of violence since the end of the province's war.

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