Monday, July 17, 2006

Serb Municipalities In Kosovo May Raised - Official

PRISTINA, Serbia (AP)--Kosovo's ethnic Albanian negotiators will consider increasing the number of new Serb municipalities to give the province's minority more rights in running their affairs, an official said Monday.

Ethnic Albanian leaders will offer the creation of six Serb-run municipalities before the next round of talks with Serbian officials on local government reform, said Skender Hyseni, a spokesman for ethnic Albanian leaders participating in the discussions.

Both sides meet July 18-19 in Vienna, Austria to discuss reforms, as well as the protection of religious sites and their restoration in Kosovo.

There was no immediate reaction from Belgrade to the ethnic Albanian announcement. The Serb negotiating team, headed by Serbia's President Boris Tadic, met Monday as part of preparation for the upcoming talks, but no details about the Serb platform were released.

Initially, ethnic Albanian leaders offered four municipalities, while Serbian officials demanded the creation of 14. Ethnic Albanians make up about 90% of Kosovo's population of 2 million.

There has been pressure by U.N. envoys mediating the status process for more flexibility and compromise in the talks.

Up until now, Serbian and ethnic Albanian representatives have held six rounds of discussions - most of which have failed to produce agreements.

Over the weekend, U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari invited the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo for talks to directly tackle the future status.

On Monday, E.U. foreign ministers welcomed Ahtisaari's intention to move forward into direct political talks on the final status issue. Many see the political talks as the first move toward recognizing Kosovo as an independent nation.

Hyseni said the ethnic Albanian leaders will participate in the high-level talks, scheduled for July 24.

The gathering, which will be chaired by Ahtisaari, would for the first time bring officials from either side to discuss face-to-face Kosovo's future status, with ethnic Albanian and Serbian leaders presenting their proposals.

The province officially remains part of Serbia, although it has been run by the U.N. and patrolled by international peacekeepers since a 1999 North Atlantic Treaty Organization aerial bombardment halted a crackdown by Serb forces on separatist ethnic Albanians.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority insists on full independence, but the Serb minority and Belgrade want to retain some control over the province.

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