Monday, October 30, 2006

Serb, Kosovo Albanian leaders differ on meaning of referendum's approval

PRISTINA, Serbia (AP) - Serbian leaders on Monday hailed the outcome of a referendum reinforcing the country's claim to the U.N.-administered province of Kosovo, but Kosovo's independence-minded ethnic Albanian majority called the result irrelevant.

Serbs and Kosovo Albanians are deadlocked over Belgrade's demands it retain some hold on the province despite Kosovo Albanians' insistence on independence -- a nettlesome divide that helped plunge the region into a war that left thousands of people dead.

While voters only narrowly passed the weekend referendum on a new constitution restating the Serb claim to Kosovo, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said the results "made it clear that we will protect our country's integrity ... and that Kosovo is part of Serbia."

Oliver Ivanovic, a Kosovo Serb leader, said the new constitution sends a "very important message" to international officials mediating in talks between Belgrade and Pristina.

"Serbia will not easily give up Kosovo, this is the main message," he said. "It tells the international community it must take into account the Serb stand as well, not only the one of (Kosovo) Albanians."

Predictably, Kosovo Albanians differed on the meaning of the vote's result.

"We consider it very irrelevant," Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku told Associated Press Television News.

The status of the province led to a war between Serbia and Kosovo that ended in June 1999, after NATO bombing forced a withdrawal by troops loyal to Slobodan Milosevic, president of what was then Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia.

Kosovo has been governed since then by the U.N., although ethnic Albanians, who constitute a more than 90-percent majority, have been granted increasing political responsibility. Along with Serbs outside Kosovo, the province's ethnic Serb minority is also vehemently opposed to independence for the province.

Kosovo was stripped of its autonomous status 1989 by Milosevic amid a building Serb crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority. The war that followed nearly a decade later left about 10,000 people dead, most of them ethnic Albanians. About 1 million others fled temporarily to neighboring Albania and Macedonia.

The referendum -- on a new post-Milosevic era constitution that restates the Serb claim to Kosovo -- nearly foundered with barely more than the required 50 percent turnout needed to make it valid.

The EU downplayed the referendum's significance, with EU spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy saying "the issue of the future status of Kosovo" was being dealt with the U.N.-mediated talks. And she said that Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority was left off voters lists.

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Associated Press writers Katarina Kratovac and Jovana Gec contributed to this report from Belgrade.

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