Tuesday, October 31, 2006

U.S. envoy for Kosovo urges conclusion of status talks

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - A U.S. envoy involved in negotiations to resolve Kosovo's postwar status said Tuesday that the talks must finish by the end of the year, as scheduled, and any delay would leave the region in "limbo."

The U.N.-mediated talks began in February, but have been made little progress in bridging the deeply conflicting positions of both sides. Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians insist on independence and have rejected offers of broad autonomy from Belgrade, which wants to keep the southern province within Serbia's border.

"We should move ahead and conclude these negotiations as soon as possible," said the U.S. envoy, Frank Wisner, after meetings with senior Serbian officials in Belgrade. "This is the firm view of the United States."

Serbia's breakaway southern province has been a U.N.-protectorate since the end of the war between Serb military forces and ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999. Most analysts have predicted that Kosovo will be granted some form of independence.

Wisner's visit to Belgrade came only days after Serbia approved in a referendum a new constitution which states that Kosovo is an integral part of the republic, regardless of the outcome of the U.N.-brokered talks.

The ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have dismissed the Serbian charter as irrelevant, but Serbian leaders have argued that popular backing on the Kosovo issue would improve their position at the talks.

Wisner said only that the "Serbian constitution is a Serbian matter."

He emphasized that any delay in the Kosovo talks must be avoided.

"Delay can only frustrate the hopes of those who live in Kosovo, and deny clarity to Serbians," he said. "The United States further believes that the delay can only leave in limbo the definition of this region, which needs to close its door on the past and begin to define its future."

The U.S. envoy met with President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic.

Draskovic said in a statement that a compromise over Kosovo should "present a bridge between Serbia's territorial integrity and the ethnic Albanian majority's demand to run Kosovo."

Kostunica insisted that "a solution for Kosovo must be in accordance with international law ... which guarantees the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all member states."

He added that "only the United Nations Security Council can authorize a solution for Kosovo; a unilateral recognition (of Kosovo's independence) would be absolutely invalid."

Serbia perceives the United States as supportive of the ethnic Albanian bid for independence. Kostunica repeatedly has said that he is counting on Serbia's traditional ally, Russia, to block possible Kosovo independence at the U.N. Security Council where it holds veto power.

Wisner said that "the final status is still under discussion ... and will be discussed further."