Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Kosovo prime minister expects U.N. report to boost independence hopes

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) - Kosovo's prime minister said Tuesday he expects a new report by the chief U.N. envoy to pave the way for the Serbian province's independence by the end of this year.

"We expect Martti Ahtisaari to present a report that Kosovo has made progress in the implementation of international standards and minority rights, and that we have enough substance to declare the independence of Kosovo," Agim Ceku said.

Ahtisaari, a former Finnish prime minister, is due to brief the U.N. Security Council on Friday on the course of talks on the future of the predominantly Albanian province.

The latest round of U.N.-brokered talks on the future status of Kosovo last week in Vienna ended in a stalemate. Belgrade is offering the province broad autonomy but wants it to remain part of Serbia.

Ceku was speaking after a meeting in Skopje with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

The United Nations has administered Kosovo since 1999, when NATO air strikes drove out Serb troops who had carried out a bloody crackdown on its independence-seeking Albanian population, which accounts for 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million population.

About 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers still patrol the province.

Ahtisaari said last month that it was premature to present a proposal on the province's final status months into negotiations between ethnic Albanian representatives and Serbian officials.

U.S. and EU envoys who visited Kosovo this week pressed ethnic Albanian leaders to provide more guarantees that the Serb minority would be protected from violence and discrimination.

An estimated 200,000 Serbs fled Kosovo after the 1988-99 conflict, fearing revenge attacks. Today, only about 100,000 remain, most living in small, isolated enclaves scattered around the province.

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