UNITED NATIONS, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Major powers on Wednesday authorized a U.N. mediator to propose a final status plan for Kosovo and to achieve a settlement by the end of this year that they said neither side could block unilaterally.
A statement by the six-member "Contact Group" overseeing Balkan diplomacy -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia -- was harshly critical of what it called Belgrade's "obstruction."
"Ministers reaffirmed their commitment that all possible efforts be made to achieve a negotiated settlement in the course of 2006," said the statement from the group's ministers.
Meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, the group heard a report from U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari on months of talks on Kosovo that have made little progress.
The former Finnish president is widely expected to propose independence for Kosovo, setting up a showdown with Serbia.
"The ministers also agreed that striving for a negotiated settlement should not obscure the fact that neither party can unilaterally block the status process from advancing," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried.
The breakaway southern Serbian province has been under U.N. administration since 1999 following a NATO bombing campaign that drove out Serb forces accused of ethnic cleansing. Ninety percent of Kosovo's 2 million people are Albanians.
Last week, Ahtisaari's deputy said he saw little chance of progress in talks between Serbs and ethnic Albanians over Kosovo, but Fried said the international community was determined to achieve a negotiated settlement if possible.
"The ministers are determined to see this through (resolving Kosovo's status)," said Fried.
If the two sides fail to agree, major powers are expected to impose a solution.
Serbia's leaders have vowed never to give up Kosovo, which Serbs regard as the historic cradle of their nation.
Pro-European reformers in the Belgrade government have warned that an enforced separation could bring the ultra-nationalist Radicals and Socialists to power in Serbian elections due next year.
But European Union Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, in charge of the EU's relations with Serbia, said Serbian leaders needed to approach the talks "with renewed realism".
"Nobody benefits from delaying a solution on the status of Kosovo," he told Reuters, saying Kosovo had been in limbo for seven years and it had caused political and economic problems.
Direct talks on the province's future began in February, with little sign of compromise. The focus has been on the rights and security of the 100,000 remaining Serbs, but U.N. mediators say Belgrade has been particularly stubborn.
Analysts say Belgrade knows Kosovo is lost, but could back a breakaway bid by the Serb north of the region. The West argues this might reignite Albanian insurgencies in southern Serbia and Macedonia.
The EU is preparing to take over from the U.N. with a smaller police and monitoring operation. NATO will keep at least some of its current 16,000 troops in Kosovo.
Rehn added that Serbia had a clear prospect of eventual EU membership once it met the conditions, including cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal, which is currently blocking negotiations on closer ties.