27 March 2006

Serb delegation to seek self-rule for their minority in Kosovo at Monday talks

AP, Feb 19, 2006 7:23 AM


BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro-The Serb delegation at upcoming talks on Kosovo will seek self-rule for its beleaguered minority in the U.N.-run province, officials said Sunday.


The U.N.-brokered negotiations between Serb and ethnic Albanian delegations are scheduled to start Monday in Vienna, Austria.


Serbian officials said they expected the meeting to focus on decentralization of rule in Kosovo, Serbia's volatile southern province which has been an international protectorate since 1999.


The negotiations are being mediated by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari.


Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo want the province to gain full independence from Serbia, while Belgrade wishes to retain at least formal control over the troubled region.


Washington and its allies hope to find a solution for the dispute by the end of 2006, some seven years after NATO bombed Serbia to end Belgrade's crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists, paving the way for the deployment of NATO troops in the province.


On the eve of the Monday talks, a Serb team member, Slobodan Samardzic, said that the Serb community in Kosovo should be given self-rule in the areas where they form majority.


Samardzic said that the Serb-run municipalities should take over health service, education, social services, judiciary and security. This would help bridge the mistrust that still exists in Kosovo, he explained.


"That is the only solution that will guarantee survival of the Serbs" in Kosovo, Samardzic, who is also an adviser to Serbia's conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, said.


"There is a deep conflict between Albanian and Serb communities" in Kosovo, he added. "Human rights are being violated on daily basis ... we must implement a specific solution."


Another negotiator, Milorad Todorovic, said that the Serb delegation will also seek an increase in the number of municipalities in Kosovo as part of the decentralization process.


Serb proposals for autonomy of their community in Kosovo, who live in isolated enclaves guarded by NATO troops, have been rejected in the past by the ethnic Albanians, who saw it as a de facto division along ethnic lines.


There are some 100,000 Serbs in Kosovo, which has a population of about 2 million people. More than 200,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians fled in the wake of the Kosovo war, fearing attacks by ethnic Albanian extremists.