Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Serbian president to press for understanding of Kosovo stance during U.S. trip

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - President Boris Tadic said Tuesday he would seek America's understanding for Serbia's stance against an independent Kosovo during his upcoming visit to Washington.

As the U.N.-mediated talks on Kosovo's future status enter a crucial phase, Tadic said he would urge U.S. officials to support Belgrade's position that the province should have broad autonomy but remain within Serb territory.

"I shall ... tell my counterparts in Washington that establishing an independent Kosovo could threaten the stability of the entire Balkans and have serious implications for other countries in the world," Tadic said.

The U.S. is part of a six-nation group helping to negotiate a resolution on Kosovo's status by the end of the year.

Tadic planned to visit Washington from Wednesday to Friday and to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. No meeting was scheduled with U.S. President George W. Bush.

Tadic said Serbia was striving to build closer ties with the "most powerful country" and to purge the "destructive image" left by late autocratic ruler Slobodan Milosevic. "The political echo of 1990s Serbia is still persistent, six years after our democratic changes."

On Kosovo, however, "Serbia's stand and that of the United States differ," Tadic said, without elaborating.

Although officially part of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by the U.N. and NATO since the 1999 alliance air war ended Serbia's crackdown that claimed thousands of mostly Kosovo Albanian lives.

In the U.N.-mediated talks -- being held in Vienna, Austria -- Serbia has offered what it described as a compromise that would include wide autonomy for the southern province.

Kosovo Albanian negotiators, however, insist on full independence from Serbia.

"Our position is that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia, and that this is Serbia's historical right," Tadic said. "But we have no intention of running the political life of the Kosovo Albanian community, now or in the future. Yet, we do have a right to be a support for Serbs living in Kosovo."

Pro-Western Tadic was elected in 2004 as Serbia was recovering from the Balkan wars under Milosevic, who was ousted in 2000 and extradited a year later to the U.N. war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands, where he died this year.

Serbia's fledgling democracy has been undermined by its failure to hunt down war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic, a former Bosnian Serb leader, and hand him over to the U.N. court.

That failure led U.S. Congress to withdraw financial aid to the Balkan nation.

"Mladic must answer the charges before the U.N. court," Tadic said. "But it has been most difficult to convince others that we have not been able to find him."

In the U.S., Tadic planned to sign a Status-of-Forces agreement, or SOFA, which defines the legal status of U.S. army personnel and property while on Serbian territory. The U.S. has some 100 such agreements with various nations, and Serbia and Belarus have been the only European countries without them.

Tadic's visit is also to include a stop in the U.S. state of Ohio to discuss Serbia's military cooperation with the U.S. National Guard.

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