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Serbs, Albanians discuss Kosovo's future
by Fisnik Abrashi

The Associated Press    Translate This Article
20 February 2006

VIENNA, Austria (AP) - Long-awaited U.N.-mediated talks on the future status of Kosovo opened Monday in Vienna as Serbs and ethnic Albanians staked out tough positions.

The closed-door talks are an attempt at resolving one of the last—and thorniest—disputes left over after the Balkans bloodletting of the 1990s as the region hopes to one day join the European Union.

``We want to resolve the status as soon as possible. Independence is coming,'' said Lutfi Haziri, Kosovo's minister of local government, who is leading the province's delegation.

Representatives of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians sat on one side of a table draped with a green cloth at Vienna's Daun-Kinsky Palace. Across the table were representatives of Serbia's government and Kosovo's Serb minority. A senior Austrian diplomat, Stefan Lehne, was representing the EU, and the United States sent a junior diplomat as envoy.

Ethnic Albanians, who comprise about 90 percent of the province's population of 2 million, want outright independence from Serbia. Serbia, however, insists on retaining some control over the region, which it considers an integral part of the nation.

The process is being mediated by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who was appointed by the United Nations to steer the talks toward an agreement, preferably by the end of this year.

``Any future settlement is about minority rights and safety,'' said Hua Jiang, Ahtisaari's spokeswoman. She said the entire process was ``about setting up a multiethnic society in Kosovo.''

Jiang said the first round of talks will deal with local government reform aimed at enhancing the rights of Serbs and other minorities, since ``both sides have a willingness to tackle it.''

``We hope it will be a good start,'' she said.

Diplomats from the so-called Contact Group—the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Russia—have already agreed on a set of guidelines for Kosovo's future.

Those rules say the province cannot return to its previous status under direct Serb rule, be partitioned along ethnic lines or be joined to another country in the region, such as Albania. They also stipulate that any agreement should be acceptable to the province's ethnic Albanian majority.

The disputed province has been administered by the United Nations since 1999, following a NATO war aimed at stopping the crackdown of Serb forces on independence-minded ethnic Albanians.

Thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced during that war, the end of which did not bring the two sides any closer to a resolution.

The Vienna talks were not dealing directly with the issue of what that status will be. Under the chairmanship of Ahtisaari's deputy, Albert Rohan, the delegations will lay the groundwork by discussing the nuts-and-bolts of local government reform.

Western diplomats have said Kosovo's quest for independence is conditional on the province becoming a democracy that respects minority rights, with local government reform a key to that goal.

The two sides have disagreed over how much power should be held locally, with the province's minority Serbs insisting they be allowed to run affairs in their communities, link up with other Serb areas and have special ties to Belgrade.

Only about 100,000 Serbs still live in Kosovo, mainly in NATO-protected enclaves; tens of thousands of others have fled, fearing reprisal attacks, or have been forced out since the end of the war. 

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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