By Matthew Robinson
PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro (Reuters) - The United Nations on Thursday dashed Serb hopes of their own "entity" in Kosovo and issued a stark response to those threatening to leave if the Albanian majority wins independence.
"When told me they couldn't live in an independent Kosovo, if this is the outcome of the status process, I told them: This is your decision, we cannot force you to stay," Albert Rohan, the deputy U.N. envoy in negotiations on Kosovo's fate, told reporters in the capital Pristina.
The Austrian diplomat, who on Wednesday visited Serbs in the north, outlined an initial proposal for Kosovo's future governing structure, the fruit of the first two rounds of Serb-Albanian talks in Vienna.
He ruled out any form of separate entity or autonomy for the 100,000 remaining Serbs, as demanded by Belgrade:
"We made it clear that this does not mean and cannot mean the creation of a separate entity," he said.
"We oppose any internal division of Kosovo and we oppose any third layer of government between the central authority and the municipalities."
Rohan is deputy to U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, who is leading negotiations on the fate of the disputed Serbian province, run by the United Nations since the 1998-99 war.
Western powers have made increasingly clear they see independence as the only realistic outcome. Kosovo's two million Albanians, 90 percent of the population, have long demanded their own state and have run their affairs since 1999.
But the Serb-dominated north has resisted U.N. efforts to reintegrate it with the rest of Kosovo, threatening the province with de facto partition.
SPLIT IN TWO
Serbia lost control of Kosovo -- its "Jerusalem" -- when NATO bombs drove out Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians in a 2-year war with separatist guerrillas, the culmination of a decade of Serb repression.
Half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks. Those who stayed eke out a grim existence on the margins of society, cocooned in a Belgrade-run world of "parallel structures" outside Kosovo's Albanian-dominated institutions.
The leaders of three mainly Serb municipalities in the north, which enjoy a natural land link to central Serbia, warned on Wednesday that Kosovo would be split in two if the U.N. Security Council grants independence later this year.
Many Serbs living in scattered enclaves across the rest of Kosovo say they will pack their bags and leave.
But partition, with implications of forced population movements, is a taboo concept in the West.
Rohan argued that the plan for decentralisation, the core of negotiations that began last month in Vienna, should provide the Serbs with enough local powers to convince them to stay.
The document allows for cooperation between Serb areas within Kosovo and financial donations from Belgrade.
"What we can do is to provide conditions where objectively we can expect the Serbs to stay and to come back," said Rohan, ahead of the next round of talks on April 3. "Whether they want to stay, to return, to leave, is their decision."