21 March 2006

UN Kosovo envoy hopes status talks can start next month, reach deal this year

Associated Press, Jan 27, 2006 8:41 AM


BRUSSELS, Belgium-The U.N. envoy appointed to head talks on Kosovo's future said Friday he hoped negotiations over the province's status could resume next month after the mourning period for President Ibrahim Rugova.


Martti Ahtisaari also said he hoped a deal on Kosovo's future could be reached this year.


"Hopefully we will see the parties in Vienna in the earliest possible date in February," Ahtisaari told reporters after talks at EU headquarters. "We will try to see if it's possible to get the status issue resolved this year."


Rugova died Saturday of lung cancer at age 61 after serving 16 years as the leader of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and overseeing their demand for independence from Serbia.


With no one in line to take Rugova's place, Kosovo's political scene has been thrown into disarray as the province prepares for the talks on its final status. The talks, which were due to begin this past Wednesday, were postponed to next month.


Ahtisaari said he would head to London next week for meetings with the so-called contact group on Kosovo that includes the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy.


The former Finnish president said Kosovo's Albanian and Serb communities are "committed to continuing the negotiating process."


The ethnic Albanian majority generally hopes the talks will lead to independence, which is strongly opposed by the Serbs. Kosovo has been administered by the U.N. since NATO air strikes drove out Yugoslav troops in 1999.


European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, meanwhile, unveiled new plans to boost Balkan economies by setting up a free trade area to help the region recover from the conflicts of the 1990s.


The plan also aims to give further EU aid to prepare Balkan countries for EU membership.


"It's much better that we export stability to the western Balkans than we import instability from that region," Rehn said. "We need to encourage the people of the western Balkans to look forward to their European future, not back to the nationalism of the past."


The plan calls for all Balkan nations to seek entrance into the World Trade Organization and to move quickly to adopt EU customs and trade rules. It also foresees easing visa restrictions for Balkan citizens wanting to enter the EU, and more student exchanges.


Rehn urged Balkan nations to crack down on corruption and organized crime, and push through democratic and economic reforms.


He said the region had already benefited from ?1.6 billion in funds over the past few years.


Croatia is already negotiating to join the EU and Macedonia has been recognized as a full candidate for membership. Albania, Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia are also hoping to join although there is increasing opposition with the EU to further expansion.