Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Kosovo Serbs boycott Vienna talks

VIENNA, Aug 8, 2006 (AFP) -

Kosovo Serb delegates, in Vienna to discuss the province's future status, boycotted negotiations on the thorny issue of community rights Tuesday, refusing to be branded as a minority and demanding to be treated as equals in the discussions.

The move was not expected to endanger the overall UN-sponsored dialogue on Kosovo but confirmed that talks over technical issues Monday had stalled.

"The Kosovo Serbs are absent for an obvious reason, they don't accept being treated as a minority," Dusan Batakovic, adviser to Serbian President Boris Tadic, told journalists. "They are a constituent nation of Kosovo. ... They feel they cannot be degraded as a minority."

This is the first time in the Vienna negotiations that any party has boycotted a session, but talks between the Serbian and Albanian delegations went ahead Tuesday, with Belgrade showing support for its Pristina counterparts.

"We cannot accept the results of the ethnic cleansing that has happened after June 1999 when more than 60 percent of Kosovo Serbs were expelled" from the province, Batakovic said, adding that his delegation was representing the Kosovo Serbs in their absence.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, which makes up about 90 percent of the province, wants independence but Belgrade and the minority Serb community insist the region is the cradle of Serb nationhood and cannot be given away.

Belgrade is concerned about the fate of ethnic Serbs in the province following any independence agreement and the eventual withdrawal of the United Nations, which has been administering Kosovo a NATO air war drove Serbia's forces from the province in 1999.

Since then some 200,000 Serbs have fled the province fearing attacks from ethnic Albanian hardliners. Those who have remained live in enclaves under heavy protection by NATO.

According to Batakovic, the Kosovo Serb delegation also refused to attend talks Tuesday because it did not wish "to be in the presence of Mr. Fatmir Limaj, who is still accused of war crimes." Limaj, who is part of the delegation from Pristina, was acquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) last December.

Before the meeting, chief Albanian negotiator Veton Surroi said he would submit new proposals Tuesday.

"Every citizen is a constituent of the new Kosovo," he said, adding that his delegation was seeking to strike normal "relations between those who are in an ethnic majority and those who are an ethnic minority."

Monday's talks broke down in mutual recrimination with both sides blaming the other, as Serbs and Kosovo Albanians met to discuss technical issues for the first time since frosty high-level talks stalled last month.

Kosovo Serb delegates announced they would shun Tuesday's session, saying "to accept talks on community rights... would mean to accept that we have the status of a minority and it is well known that a people in its own country cannot be a minority."

"The Serbs still insist on two ethnicities," the head of the Albanian delegation, Lufti Haziri, replied, insisting Pristina supported autonomy for minorities.

The West favours independence for Kosovo under certain conditions, but the decision ultimately rests with the United Nations Security Council.

UN Special Envoy for Kosovo Martti Ahtissari is expected to publish a new report in September in New York, his spokeswoman Hua Jiang told AFP.

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