Thursday, May 25, 2006

Serbs unhappy with mediator's efforts on Kosovo

By Matt Robinson1 hour, 31 minutes ago
Serbia has told the major powers guiding policy on Kosovo it is unhappy with the efforts of U.N. chief mediator Martti Ahtisaari to negotiate a deal on its southern breakaway province, diplomats say.

"Serbia has expressed dissatisfaction with the way it's going and with the people running it," a senior Western official in Kosovo told Reuters on Thursday.

Kosovo daily Zeri reported on Thursday that Belgrade had written to the Contact Group of major powers asking them to sideline Ahtisaari's U.N. team in Vienna and chair direct talks that would be held in the Macedonian lakeside town of Ohrid.

"It's half true," the western official said of the story, confirming the Contact Group -- the United States, Britain, Russia, Italy, Germany and France -- had received a letter expressing serious concern with Ahtisaari, former Finnish president.

Serbia is already reeling from the loss of the tiny Adriatic republic of Montenegro which voted in a referendum on Sunday to end a 90-year-union, one of the last acts in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

Diplomats expect Kosovo to be granted independence.

The western official in Kosovo said Belgrade's aim was to "delay the inevitable, be it by changing direction, venue,


Legally part of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombs drove out Serb forces accused of ethnic cleansing in a two-year war with ethnic Albanian separatist guerrillas.

Serbs consider it their religious heartland, but 90 percent of the people are ethnic Albanians demanding independence.

U.S. ambassador to Belgrade Michael Polt declined to comment on the report but told Reuters that Washington had "full confidence" in Ahtisaari's approach.

"We are firmly committed that that's the way it must stay," he said. "Our encouragement to our Serb friends is: work with Ahtisaari to find practical solutions to practical problems and don't get hung up on procedural issues or over your categorical status positions."


Diplomats want to secure the rights and security of the remaining 100,000 Serbs, a ghettoized minority, before independence. They say Serb leaders are aware of the direction Kosovo is heading but are ill-prepared to face it.

Appointed by the U.N. Security Council, Ahtisaari opened direct talks between Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians in February. They are currently tackling Serb rights, local government reform and protection for Kosovo's rich Serb Orthodox religious heritage. Talks on actual status could begin in July.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica met Ahtisaari in Belgrade on Monday and said he wanted to hold face-to-face talks on status.

Ahtisaari's team is undecided whether to hold direct talks on status, or shuttle between capitals. Belgrade fears the latter mode would limit its room for maneuver.

U.N. officials accuse Serbia of being uncooperative, making unrealistic demands and blocking efforts to integrate the Serbs.

The Contact Group is "disappointed" with the level of engagement by Belgrade, the western official said.

"If only they could engage in reasonable dialogue. A little more enlightened self-interest would go along way."

The Contact Group says it wants a deal this year. It says the solution must be acceptable to the majority of the people, nearly all of whom who reject a return to Serb rule.

Foreign diplomats are concerned at a possible nationalist backlash in Serbia with possible snap elections looming. But they see little option other than to amputate Kosovo and place it under European Union and NATO supervision for years to come.

(Additional reporting by Douglas Hamilton)

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