03 April 2006

Kosovo's prime minister says nothing short of independence acceptable

Associated Press, Mar 10, 2006 7:08 PM


PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro-Kosovo's new prime minister said anything short of independence from Serbia was "out of the question," but emphasized in an interview hours after his election that respect for the province's Serb minority would be a priority for his government.


Serbia had opposed the appointment of Lt. Gen. Agim Ceku, the former leader of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, accusing him of war crimes and saying his election could be detrimental to ongoing U.N.-led talks on Kosovo's future. He denies those charges as politically motivated.


"My conscience is completely clean," Ceku told The Associated Press on Friday. "I know I never acted, saw, ordered or did something that violates the customs of war."


Kosovo, a province that is slightly larger than Lebanon in size, has been run by the United Nations since NATO launched a bombing campaign to end a Serb crackdown on independence-minded ethnic Albanian rebels in 1999. The Serbs want Belgrade to retain control, while the ethnic Albanian majority insists on full independence.


"Other solutions are out of the question," Ceku told the AP. "The only solution that guarantees that this place will be functional and stable is independence."


But Ceku, 44, pledged to make the security of its minorities, notably the Serbs, a priority for his government.


"I am aware that the road toward independence is achieved by respecting minorities," Ceku told AP. "The integration of the minorities, their safety and freedom of movement is in the majority's interest."


Following his election Friday in a 65-33 vote, Ceku made similar comments to the parliament in a speech that was broadcast live, switching from Albanian to the Serbian language, a highly symbolic act in a province still rife with ethnic tension, and called on minorities to participate in Kosovo's political life and consider Kosovo their home.


Ceku, a former general in Croatia's army, fought against Serbs during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. He became commander of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla force that also fought Serb troops during Kosovo's 1998-1999 war, which ended with the NATO air bombardment.


Ivica Dacic, from ex-President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist party, said Ceku's appointment demonstrated that "Kosovo Albanians have no intention of thinking of a life together with Serbs and others" in the province.


About 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, which has a population of about 2 million people. More than 200,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians fled in after the war, fearing reprisals by ethnic Albanians, and only a trickle have returned.


Kosovo Serbs now live mostly in enclaves protected by international peacekeepers. They rarely venture outside their neighborhoods, and need to be escorted by peacekeeping troops to and from schools, churches or graveyards.


Serbian President Boris Tadic told the private Beta news agency that Belgrade realized it had no influence over who is elected Kosovo's premier.


"Above all, it is more important what the premier does when it comes to the life of people in Kosovo," Tadic said, speaking during a visit to Vienna.


He also expressed hope Ceku would work to improve the lives of Serbs in Kosovo.


"I cannot influence the past and Ceku's past actions, but I can insist he does something about this in the future," Tadic said.


Ceku is the province's fourth prime minister.


A political reshuffle had forced the previous prime minister, Bajram Kosumi, to resign last week. Kosumi's predecessor, Ramush Haradinaj, resigned after being indicted last year on war crimes charges by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.


The prime minister's position is the province's top job, and Ceku also becomes a member of the five-man delegation participating in the U.N.-mediated talks on the province's future. The talks started in February and aim to resolve the dispute by the end of the year.


British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Friday that it would be unrealistic to keep Kosovo part of Serbia.


"The reality," Straw added, "is that the Serb population in the end will have to accept that a big majority of people in Kosovo are likely to be in support of independence."