Monday, October 09, 2006

Ahtisaari says Kosovo plan still aimed at end-2006

HELSINKI, Oct 9 (Reuters) - A proposal to settle the status of Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo is still expected to be submitted by next month, U.N.-appointed mediator Martti Ahtisaari said on Monday.

Ahtisaari said last week a plan on the future of the U.N.-administered province might have to wait until after elections in Serbia, which many in Belgrade expect to be held in December.

But asked whether a delay was still possible, Ahtisaari told Reuters on the sidelines of a seminar on the future of Kosovo: "No such directions have been given. Quite the contrary. The debate that has been going on internationally has not affected our schedule in any way."

"(The) starting point for the schedule we have with the Contact Group is that this issue will be solved by the end of the year," he added, referring to the group overseeing Balkan diplomacy comprising Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Italy and Russia.

Ahtisaari did not explain the apparent change in his position on the issue.

He told the seminar he would next meet the Contact Group later in October, and then again in early November.

Ahtisaari's comments last week were followed by British and U.S. officials stressing that the goal for the decision was still within 2006. Western officials are concerned that talk of a delay could spark violence by ethnic Albanian extremists.

Ahtisaari would not say what the implications of a delay could be. "We would have to consider it then. Hopefully, it would not be anything dramatic," he said.

He did not comment on the substance of his proposal for Kosovo, which the U.N. could then impose.

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombs drove out Serb forces accused of civilian killings and ethnic cleansing in a two-year war with guerrillas. Ninety percent of its people are Albanians, who lost 10,000 to the war.

Ahtisaari opened direct talks in February in Vienna, focusing mostly on the rights and security of the province's remaining Serb minority.

Diplomats widely expect the former Finnish president to suggest a form of independence for the territory, which Serbia sees as the cradle of its nation and refuses to give up.