Wednesday, July 12, 2006

UN expects top level Kosovo meeting by end-July

PRISTINA, Serbia, July 12 (Reuters) - U.N. mediators in talks on the fate of Kosovo expect to chair the highest-level meeting of Serbs and pro-independence ethnic Albanians since the 1998-99 war in the last week of July, a U.N. official said.

The meeting in Vienna should bring together Serbian President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, and the interim president and prime minister of the breakaway province, Fatmir Sejdiu and Agim Ceku.

The "final status" of Serbia's southern province -- independence or autonomy -- will top the agenda, after six rounds of lower-level talks on minority and religious rights.

"It is planned for the week beginning the 24th," Hua Jiang, spokeswoman for U.N. chief envoy Martti Ahtisaari, said by phone from New York late on Tuesday.

Ahtisaari will send the invitations after briefing the U.N. Security Council on Thursday.

Tadic told Serbian state television the meeting was "foreseen" for July 24, but said the Serbs had asked for clarification of how Ahtisaari planned to conduct the talks.

"The Serb side has addressed a letter to Ahtisaari asking for specification of the conditions under which the negotiations will be conducted and the entire structure and format," he said.

It will be the highest-level encounter since the two-year war between Belgrade and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, which NATO ended in 1999 by bombing for 11 weeks to drive out Serb forces and halt a wave of civilian killings and ethnic cleansing.

Some 10,000 Albanians died and 800,000 were expelled, marking the culmination of a decade of Serb repression under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

After being run by the United Nations for seven years, the 90 percent Albanian majority demands independence, though Serbia's post-Milosevic reformers have so far rejected this.

Direct talks on the fate of the impoverished province of 2 million people began in February in Vienna.

Ahtisaari will report to the Security Council after the July meeting, but diplomats say it is uncertain whether he will call for more talks between the top leaders. The former Finnish president, who is pursuing a shuttle mission parallel to direct talks, is working to a year-end deadline set by the West.

Diplomats say Kosovo is heading for independence, under European Union supervision and secured by a NATO peace force that currently numbers 17,000 soldiers.

The major powers setting policy on Kosovo said the settlement should be acceptable to its people, but Moscow has cautioned against setting any "artificial timetable".

Ahtisaari is trying to secure more rights for Kosovo's 100,000 ghettoised Serbs, who Westernpower fear could quit the province en masse. About as many fled revenge attacks in 1999.

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