Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Kosovo says Serb polls must not delay independence

PRISTINA, Serbia, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Kosovo Albanian leaders called on the United Nations on Wednesday not to postpone a decision on the fate of their breakaway province until after snap elections in Serbia.

U.N. mediator Martti Ahtisaari told Finnish television on Tuesday that if Serbia called a general election for late December, he might put back his proposal, widely expected to back Kosovo's demand for independence.

But the Kosovo government, which is promising 2 million impatient ethnic Albanians their own state from Jan. 1, said Serbian polls "must not have any impact on the status process".

"We are working towards a status resolution within the timeframe set by the Contact Group, and that is within the year," said Arben Qirezi, senior adviser to the prime minister, referring to the six-nation Contact Group of Western powers and Russia.

The popular opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo, with its voter base in Kosovo's former guerrilla heartlands, said a delay would "create uncertainty inside and outside Kosovo".

"The credibility of the negotiations and the negotiators themselves would be lost," said senior party member Hajredin Kuci.

The United States and major European powers had insisted on a deal in 2006, concerned that delay could spark fresh violence in a territory patrolled by 16,000 NATO-led troops. Kosovo's leaders have avoided telling their people they might have to wait, or that a delay could be swallowed.

The U.N. governor in Kosovo, charged with steering the impoverished province through what promises to be a tense transition, said an early solution was essential.

"I'm sure the Contact Group and of course Mr Ahtisaari and the key players are very conscious of the critical importance of having an early solution," said German Joachim Ruecker.

Ahtisaari had been expected to make his proposal by November. But with the Serbian government on the ropes over suspended European Union talks and headed for early elections, Ahtisaari said the Contact Group might tell him to wait.

"If the election date will be at the end of this year, it might be that in the Contact Group there is a will to reconsider the timetable and maybe it will mean that my proposal, which is under preparation, would be presented only after the elections," Ahtisaari told Finland's public broadcaster, YLE.

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, but there has been no compromise on the central issue of Kosovo's future status. The U.N. Security Council looks certain to impose a solution, which diplomats say will bring a form of independence supervised and policed by the EU.

Diplomats say at least several weeks and perhaps months could pass between Ahtisaari's proposal and a U.N. vote.

(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza and Branislav Krstic)

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