Friday, September 29, 2006

Serbia Drafts New Constitution Claiming Kosovo

BELGRADE (AP)--Serbia's leaders have drafted a new constitution that declares Kosovo an integral part of the republic, regardless of the ongoing U.N.-brokered talks on the future of the province, a government official said Friday.

Government minister Zoran Loncar said the draft constitution would be submitted to the Serbian parliament for an urgent review and a vote, to be followed by a national referendum.

Parliament officials said the review could be held as soon as Saturday, while the referendum could take place in early November.

The new constitution needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the 250-member assembly, and confirmed by the referendum, before it can take effect. It could also lead to early elections in late 2006 or 2007.

The new constitution is designed to underscore Serbia's opposition to Kosovo's possible secession. It also, however, is widely seen as a face-saving effort by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who is facing a government crisis and possible walkout of a key coalition member.

The Liberal G17 Party has threatened to leave the Cabinet over Serbia's failure to arrest top war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic and resume pre-entry talks with the European Union.

The constitution would declare Kosovo - Serbia's southern region that has been a U.N. protectorate since 1999 - part of the republic, in an apparent bid to counter increasing signs that Kosovo will be granted some form of independence at the international talks.

Passage of the new constitution would effectively rule out Belgrade's consent for Kosovo's independence.

"If four million people were to vote in the referendum, that would show to the international community that Serbia is united in its bid to preserve its identity," Vojislav Mihailovic, the deputy parliament speaker, told reporters Friday.

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to halt Belgrade's crackdown against the separatist ethnic Albanians. Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians insist on independence, while Belgrade says the region should remain at least formally within Serbia's boundaries.

Though Serbian leaders have pledged to oppose independence for Kosovo, they have ruled out armed conflict over the province.

About 10,000 people were killed in Kosovo during the 1998-99 war.

The draft constitution also pledges Serbia's commitment to European standards and grants a form of self-rule to the northern, Vojvodina province, said Dusan Petrovic, from the pro-Western Democratic Party. No other details about the draft's contents were immediately available.

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