Sunday, July 23, 2006

Kosovo to seek independence in top-level talks

By Beti Bilandzic

VIENNA (Reuters) - Kosovo stakes its claim to independence on Monday at top-level talks between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, the first since NATO's 1999 air war wrested control of the province from Serbia.

The one-day meeting in Vienna formally puts the international status of the majority Albanian province -- independence or autonomy -- on the agenda of a U.N.-led mediation process that began in February.

The presidents and prime ministers of both sides will talk face-to-face for the first time since the West intervened to drive out Serb forces accused of ethnic cleansing and the United Nations took control.

Concrete results are unlikely, given what diplomats say is an unbridgeable chasm between the two sides. Ninety percent of Kosovo's 2 million people are Albanians who reject any return to Serb rule, while Serbia sees Kosovo as for ever its "Jerusalem".

U.N. chief mediator Martti Ahtisaari has played down hopes of a breakthrough on Monday. He is working to a year-end deadline set by the West for proposing a settlement, but six months of lower-level direct talks on the rights of the 100,000 Serbs still in Kosovo have produced few signs of compromise.

Ahtisaari's spokeswoman, Hua Jiang, said the meeting would give both sides the chance to "formally present and clarify their positions."

"We all know what the positions are, and they are far, far apart," said Jiang. A second round at this level is uncertain.

Diplomats say the major powers see little alternative to independence, supervised for years by the European Union.

The United States is pushing hard for a deal in 2006, concerned that delay could spark fresh violence in a territory patrolled by 17,000 NATO soldiers. Russia, a veto holder in the U.N. Security Council and traditional ally of Serbia, has cautioned against any "artificial timetable".

NATO bombed the Serbs for 78 days in 1999 to halt civilian killings and ethnic cleansing by forces under late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas. Some 10,000 Albanians died, 800,000 were expelled.

But Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of Serbdom, home to scores of centuries-old Orthodox churches. Belgrade is offering autonomy. "The sooner the dangerous idea of creating a new state on Serbian territory is forgotten the better for all," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on Saturday.

Half of Kosovo's Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks after the war and many of those who stayed live on the margins of society, targeted by sporadic violence.

The mainly Serb north of Kosovo has threatened partition, but the West fears this would revive territorial ambitions among Albanians in neighboring southern Serbia and Macedonia.

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