Thursday, October 05, 2006

Stop talk of Kosovo delay, say Western powers

PRISTINA, Serbia, Oct 5 (Reuters) - Britain and the United States said on Thursday they remain committed to seeking a decision this year on whether or not Kosovo becomes independent from Serbia as its ethnic Albanian majority demands.

Moving to scotch talk of a possible delay, which might carry the risk of triggering violence by extremists, American and British officials in the capital, Pristina, said there had been no change in their commitment to a solution before 2007.

The statements followed a comment by United Nations mediator Marrti Ahtisaari that a snap Serbian general election likely to be held in December might persuade the U.N. to delay a decision on the proposed solution that he is due to submit next month.

The U.N. has run Kosovo since 1999 when NATO drove Serb forces out of the southern province. "There has been speculation about the time-line of the status process," the head of the British liaison office, David Blunt, said in a statement.

"The recent ministerial statement of the Contact Group made it clear that all possible efforts will be made to achieve a settlement in the course of 2006. That remains our target."

Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, Italy and Russia form the Contact Group of major powers.

A U.S. official in Pristina, Tina Kaidanow, told reporters that Washington was also "still guided by the Contact Group ministers' statement on Sept 20."

"Nothing has changed and we will continue in that way," she said at a news conference with Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku.

"All the representatives of foreign offices in Pristina told me that they support the Contact Group statement," Ceku said. "There is no change regarding the agenda of status."

Tensions between Albanians and Serbs remain high seven years after the 1998-99 Albanian insurgency and ensuing Serb crackdown, which ultimately provoked the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, then ruled by the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

In March 2004, 19 people died and hundreds of homes burned in two days of Albanian riots that took the NATO-led peace force and the United Nations by surprise. They have vowed there must be no repeat, but violence is never far from Kosovo's surface.

Serbia says Kosovo, with a 90 percent Albanian majority, can have the fullest possible autonomy but no independence, no U.N. seat, no international borders and no army.

Direct talks between the two, mediated by Ahtisaari, have shown no glint of compromise and some Western diplomats expect Ahtisaari will recommend a form of conditional independence when he reports to the Security Council in November.

But not all agree. Some Western diplomats say the former Finnish president may report that Kosovo is still some way from establishing the necessary democratic standards to merit self-determination.