Thursday, September 21, 2006

Kosovo solution due by November -sources

PRISTINA, Serbia, Sept 21 (Reuters) - U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari will propose a settlement for Kosovo by November, after he won backing from the major powers to wind up Serb-Albanian talks, diplomatic sources said on Thursday.

"You're looking at November, but it could be earlier," a senior Western official close to the process told Reuters after the major powers instructed Ahtisaari to produce his proposal.

A Kosovo government official said Ahtisaari, who has led talks between Serbia and Kosovo Albanians since February, would make his proposal "by the end of October at the latest".

Meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, foreign ministers of the major Western powers and Russia gave Ahtisaari the green light to go to the next phase.

They said "all possible efforts" should be made to reach a solution by the end of the year.

The timetable suggests the United States and its European allies have overcome Russian opposition to a strict deadline. Moscow had backed Serb demands for a delay, but the statement issued after the meeting accused Belgrade of "obstruction".

Diplomats say Ahtisaari will propose independence for the Albanian majority province, with safeguards for the Serb minority supervised by the European Union and NATO.

The move would end more than seven years of limbo in Kosovo, since NATO's first "humanitarian" war halted a brutal crackdown by forces under Serbia's late president Slobodan Milosevic and the United Nations took control.

Ahtisaari's deputy has said chances of further progress in talks are "increasingly slim."


Western powers are mindful of increasing impatience among the 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority, and the potential for fresh attacks against the 100,000 remaining Serbs.

The 16,000-strong NATO peace force said on Thursday it had stepped up patrols after a spate of bomb attacks, including one on Tuesday that wounded four elderly Serbs.

Privately, U.N. officials in Kosovo have warned of a violent meltdown if a decision were delayed much longer. One senior U.N. official had told Reuters the mission would become "unmanageable" by spring 2007.

Serbia refuses to consider independence for Kosovo, to many Serbs the cradle of their nation. But there is an increasingly desperate ring to official language in Belgrade.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica appeared to portray the New York statement as a victory, thanking traditional Orthodox ally Russia for its steadfast support.

"In this historically important moment for Serbia, Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, advocate that international law must be respected, there can be no unilateral change of borders of sovereign states and that only an agreement accepted by both sides can be approved by the U.N. Security Council," he told the state news agency.

Serbia lost control over the territory of 2 million people in 1999, when NATO bombed for 78 days to drive out Serb forces accused of atrocities and ethnic cleansing in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas.

Around half the prewar Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks in 1999. The United Nations has contingency plans for a fresh exodus in the event of independence, and some fear a bid by the mainly Serb north to secede, splitting Kosovo in two. (Additional reporting by Shaban Buza)

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