BRUSSELS (AP)--A top U.S. State Department official Friday criticized Serbian Premier Vojislav Kostunica for saying that Serbs will never give up Kosovo, and urged the region's ethnic Albanian leaders to "step up, increase and improve" the rights of the Serb minority in the province.
U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns also rejected suggestions that the outcome of the current U.N.-sponsored negotiations on the final status of the province of 2 million people would inevitably serve as a model for other independence-minded regions - such as South Ossetia or Abkhazia in Georgia.
"We are confirmed in our judgment that 2006 must be the year of decision for Kosovo and we believe the final status of talks must conclude this year," Burns said.
He was speaking ahead of a meeting in Brussels Friday of the six-nation Contact Group - the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Russia, France and Italy - with Martti Ahtisaari, the special U.N. envoy overseeing the process of steering ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs toward a settlement for Kosovo.
"It's absolutely important that the Kosovar Albanian leadership step up, increase, improve its adherence to the standards that have to be met to protect Serb rights," Burns said, citing the murder of a Serb civilian last week in Kosovo. "There's no guaranteed outcome here, people have to earn their way forward in these negotiations and that was a message that we give to the Kosovo Albanians."
The province, which technically remains a region of Serbia, has been governed by the U.N. since 1999, when an aerial onslaught by NATO prevented Serbian forces under the command of former President Slobodan Milosevic from cracking down on ethnic Albanian insurgents.
Albanians, who make up 90% of the population, are determined to win independence, but Belgrade has insisted that Kosovo should remain formally tied to Serbia albeit with wide-ranging autonomy.
Wednesday, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica visited Kosovo's capital, Pristina, and vowed not to give up the region.
"It was not positive to say in Pristina the other day ... that Kosovo is for Serbs, Kosovo is part of Serbia forever," Burns told reporters. "Not after 1997, 1998 and 1999, after what took place in those years in Kosovo not after the period of the last seven years when we've tried to right the balance."
Kostunica and Serbian President Boris Tadic are due to visit Washington in July to discuss the issue with U.S. administration officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. [ 30-06-06 1359GMT ]