04 April 2006

EU downplays comments on Kosovo independence

AFP, Saturday March 11, 12:57 PM


SALZBURG (AFP) - The European Union has downplayed the significance of remarks by Britain's foreign minister that independence for the UN-run Serbian province of Kosovo was "almost inevitable".


But Belgrade immediately voiced concern at the comments by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, which raised some eyebrows at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Salzburg, Austria.


"I'm surprised because this statement of minister Straw is against the charter of the United Nations ... and international law," said Serbia-Montenegro foreign minister Vuk Draskovic Saturday.


Kosovo was put under United Nations administration in mid-1999 after a NATO bombing campaign drove out Serbian forces loyal to then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who were cracking down on Albanian rebels.


Straw said Friday that Belgrade might have to accept the "reality ... that a big majority of people in Kosovo are likely to be in support of independence".


"Everybody accepts that the pre-1999 situation is unsustainable as a basis for the future. And if that is the case, then a pathway towards independence becomes almost inevitable," the British minister added.


EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana underlined that Straw's remark -- -- among the strongest statements so far about Kosovo's possible separation from Belgrade -- was only London's view.


"That's something that's not decided. The negotiations have just started," he said, referring to UN-mediated talks on the final status of the province, whose ethnic Albanian majority want independence from Serbia.


Of support for Kosovo's independence, he added: "That may be the position ... that is maintained by some countries and it's normal that they express what for them should be the outcome.


"But it's still finally ... not agreed yet," he said.


The remarks were welcomed by Kosovo's new president, Fatmir Sejdiu, who succeeded the late Ibrahim Rugova last month.


"That is a position that is supportive of the will of the people of Kosovo. We want to build a nation where there is the rule of law and all the rights of all communities are respected," he added.


But other EU ministers urged caution on the issue.


"You cannot have independence if you cannot take care of your minorities... If that is not the case, as far as I'm concerned they have to wait," said Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot, referring to the Serb minority in Kosovo.


Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn added: "We as foreign ministers, we have our vision but also (have) to be at this moment a little bit in the corner."


He added that Straw had expressed a personal opinion.


"I'm only from Luxemburg but we have to be very careful," he said.


UN special representative for Kosovo Soren Jessen-Petersen, also attending the EU talks, echoed those comments.


Kosovo's "status will be determined on the views on the majority, but the majority has to also show that there are prepared to secure the rights of the minority. That is then clear what the outcome will be," he said.