BRUSSELS, May 17, 2006 (AFP) -
United Nations special envoy for Kosovo Martti Ahtisaari warned Wednesday that talks on the final status of the UN-run Serbian province might not be concluded as planned by the end of the year.
"If it doesn't happen for the 31st of December and it goes a bit over the next year then we have to live with that," he told reporters after talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Negotiations are underway to determine the final status of Kosovo, whose 90 percent ethnic Albanian population wants independence from Belgrade.
The next round of talks between Pristina and Belgrade is due to be held in Vienna on May 23, notably to discuss protection of religious sites, said the former Finnish president.
He underlined that the talks, which have so far focused on questions of decentralization, will continue for another month or possibly more, before broaching the issue of Kosovo's final status itself.
Since the end of Kosovo's 1998-1999 conflict, some 200,000 Serbs have fled the province fearing reprisals by ethnic Albanian extremists, while the remainder -- some 100,000 people -- live in fear for their lives and property.
NATO-led peacekeepers have been deployed throughout Kosovo since the alliance's bombing campaign drove out Serb troops for a crackdown against separatist Albanians. NATO currently has some 17,000 troops in the province.
NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer meanwhile reaffirmed that the NATO-led KFOR peaceepers were there to protect both the majority ethnic Albanian population as well as the minority Serbs.
"The Alliance will not run away and shut the door behind it as soon as there is a solution ... there will be a need for a security presence," he said. "What exactly that would look like is too early to say," he added.
Ahtisaari added that he plans to travel to Moscow and China in coming weeks.