Monday, July 24, 2006

Ethnic Albanians, Serb leaders far apart on Kosovo's future

VIENNA, Austria (AP) - Top ethnic Albanian and Serbian leaders were divided as ever Monday during their first face-to-face talks over Kosovo's future.

Ethnic Albanians arrived at the unprecedented talks, held in a Vienna palace, insisting that their tiny province be independent. Serbs said they were we ready to offer broad autonomy, but wanted to keep Kosovo within Serbian borders.

"It is evident that the positions of the parties remain far apart," U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari told a news conference. "Belgrade would agree to almost anything but independence, whereas Pristina would accept nothing but full independence."

Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, said he saw no signs of a breakthrough in the daylong meeting, but also had not expected one.

"This is the first meeting of this kind," he said. "The idea of this meeting was to give the parties an opportunity to present their case."

The delegations provided their well-known arguments to reporters after the closed-door meeting.

Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told the meeting that his country would not accept another state to be created on 15 percent of its territory. Serbia claims Kosovo is the heart of its kingdom, and the medieval cradle of their statehood.

Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu countered that independence was "the beginning and end of our position," and that the will of the province's ethnic Albanian majority could not be negotiated. Kosovo has said Serbia lost its right to govern the province after its former leadership sparked a war in which an estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians died.

Kosovo's status was last formally discussed in 1999 at the height of the war that pitted Serbian troops loyal to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic against ethnic Albanian separatists.

Those talks, held in France, ended with no results, after which a 78 days of NATO air attacks that forced an end to the Serb crackdown and put Kosovo under U.N. administration for the past seven years.

While violence has ebbed, the ethnic Albanian majority -- 90 percent of the province's 2 million population -- and its Serbian minority remain deeply divided over the future.

The U.N.-brokered talks are aimed at steering both sides toward a solution by year's end. Before Monday, the talks were held at experts' level, with proposals tabled on enhancing Serb minority rights.

Serbia's President Boris Tadic told the news conference after the meeting that the two sides' differences were substantial.

"We are flexible and we are for a compromise, but the compromise does not include independence," Tadic said, but added that Serbia not resort to violence in defending its interest.

Kostunica told reporters that independence for Kosovo would violate the U.N. charter that guarantees the sovereignty of states. "If that piece of paper is violated, things all over the world will be destabilized," he said.

Kosovo's Sejdiu said independence was key for Kosovo's future, given its past.

"We had a bitter past with bad solutions that culminated into a war, which had tragic consequences for our people and those of the region," he told reporters. "The future of Kosovo is its full independence, which is the majority's will."

Ethnic Albanian leader Veton Surroi said it was "fairly improbable that there will be a negotiated solution," given the intransigence of both sides.

The six-nation Contact Group -- the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Russia -- supervising the process urged both sides to engage constructively and show flexibility and willingness to reach "realistic compromised-based solutions."

The group has set guidelines for the talks, however, including rejections of the province's return to Belgrade's control or of its partition or unification with other regional countries. It also has said the solution should be acceptable to Kosovo's people.

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