Tuesday, August 15, 2006

New UN chief rules out Kosovo partition

PRISTINA, Serbia, Aug 15 (Reuters) - Kosovo's biggest challenge this year will be keeping Serb minority areas peaceful and staving off any threat of partition, the new United Nations governor for the southern Serbian province said on Tuesday.

Joachim Ruecker, a German diplomat, was confirmed on Monday as the sixth chief of the U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in seven years. He expects to be the last, as the West mulls granting Kosovo the independence its Albanian majority demands.

In his first news conference after his appointment was announced on Monday, Ruecker stressed that Belgrade's idea of partitioning the province and annexing the northern, Serb-majority part to Serbia, is out of the question.

"UNMIK and KFOR (the NATO-led Kosovo Force) have increased their presence in the north and I think that was the most important development in recent months," Ruecker said. "We cannot and we do not accept partition as an option."

Kosovo has been under U.N. administration since 1999 following NATO bombing that expelled Serb forces to end what Western powers said was deliberate killing of civilians in fighting an ethnic Albanian rebel insurgency.

About 100,000 Serbs stayed on while up to twice as many fled revenge attacks after the war. Most live in a northern triangle of territory supported and serviced from Belgrade.

Ninety percent of Kosovo's 2 million people are ethnic Albanians. U.N.-brokered talks are under way to determine whether Kosovo will remain part of Serbia, as sought by the government in Belgrade, or becomes independent. The talks, which started in February, are expected to conclude by year-end.

Ruecker, 55, takes up his duties on September 1, replacing Soren Jessen-Petersen of Denmark who resigned in June.

He said his focus would be on building stable institutions, increasing the participation of minorities in political life and promoting economic development.He added that he expected to be Kosovo's last U.N. governor.

"A very important part of the mission's work will now focus on preparing for UNMIK departure and preparing for the handover to the authorities and to the future international mission as defined by the status settlement," Ruecker said.

The European Union is expected to assume a supervisory role if, as expected, Kosovo is granted conditional independence.

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