Wednesday, July 05, 2006

U.N. envoy to push local reform duing Kosovo visit

PRISTINA, Serbia (AP) - A U.N. mediator was to urge Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders Wednesday to give the province's Serb minority more rights.

Albert Rohan, the deputy U.N. envoy for the Kosovo talks, began a visit to Kosovo by touring six Serbian villages throughout the province and the Serb Orthodox Decani Monastery in western Kosovo.

He was to meet ethnic Albanian leaders involved in Kosovo's future status on Thursday, before traveling to Belgrade on Friday to meet with Serbian officials.

"He will be listening to both sides and appeal to them to be more flexible," said U.N. spokeswoman Hua Jiang.

Rohan's visit comes ahead of the special U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari's consultations with the U.N. Security Council in mid-July, when he is expected to call on ethnic Albanian and Serb delegations to directly discuss Kosovo's future status later this month.

Some form of independence for Kosovo is the most likely outcome of the talks, but international envoys are trying to steer the two sides toward agreeing on issues to give assurances to the Serb minority, who live in heavily guarded enclaves scattered around this tiny province. U.N. officials hope to have a solution by the end of the year.

Serbian and ethnic Albanian representatives have held six rounds of discussions since mid-February centered on the reform of the local government and protection of Serb religious sites, in an effort to improve the rights of Kosovo's Serb minority.

The negotiations on the reform of the local government have failed to produce agreements, with ethnic Albanian and Serbian officials disputing the number of Serb municipalities, the authority that local leaders should exercise and what their ties to Serbia.

"We will see whether there's a need and desire to have another round of talks on decentralization," Jiang said.

The two sides agreed in May on basic elements on how to protect Kosovo's cultural and religious sites, particularly in parts of the province dominated by ethnic Albanians. The two sides were scheduled to hold another round of talks on the issue on July 11, but at the request of the Serbian delegation, that meeting has been postponed, Jian said, adding a new date would be discussed.

Kosovo, legally a province of Serbia, has been under U.N. rule since mid-1999 when NATO's air war halted Serb forces brutal crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.

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