05 May 2007

Kosovo says Yes to U.N. plan, Serbia says No (2)

Reuters, Sat Feb 3, 2007 3:43 AM ET By Ellie Tzortzi and Matt Robinson

BELGRADE/PRISTINA (Reuters) - U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari unveiled a plan on Friday to set Serbia's Kosovo province on a path to independence, an outcome which Kosovo's majority Albanians quickly applauded but Belgrade rejected.

Ahtisaari's proposal did not mention "independence" or address the loss of Serbia's sovereignty over the territory, where 90 percent of the people are ethnic Albanian. But both sides said this was clearly what it implied.

The poor landlocked province of two million borders Albania and is cherished by Serbs as the medieval homeland of their nation. Its status is one of the last unresolved problems from the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

"Kosovo will be sovereign like all other countries," said Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu after meeting Ahtisaari in Kosovo's capital Pristina.

Prime Minister Agim Ceku, a former guerrilla in the 1998-99 Kosovo Liberation Army which fought the forces of the late Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, said the document "is very clear for Kosovo's future". The process will end "when Kosovo becomes an independent state." His cabinet threw a cocktail party.

After a meeting in Serbia, President Boris Tadic agreed the plan "opens up the possibility of independence". But Tadic said he told the envoy: "Serbia and I as its president will never accept the independence of Kosovo."

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has condemned Ahtisaari for "anti-Serb bias", and took the lead in rejecting his plan in advance, refusing even to meet the envoy on Friday.

Ahtisaari's plan gives Kosovo access to international bodies usually reserved for sovereign states and allows it to use its own flag and anthem. The Serb minority would have broad self-government.

"The settlement provides for an international representative to supervise the implementation," Ahtisaari told a news conference. The NATO-led peace force "will continue to provide a safe and secure environment ... as long as necessary".

It includes measures to "promote sustainable economic development including Kosovo's ability to apply for membership in international financial institutions", he added.


Ahtisaari declined several opportunities to address the issue of Kosovo's ultimate status, saying this would be settled by the U.N. Security Council once he formally presented his plan, following a last round of consultations.

He said the diametrically opposed positions of the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians were "extremely fixed". He was allowing them "one more chance" to agree but was "not terribly optimistic".

"That might require so much time that I don't think I have enough years in my life to achieve that," said the 69-year-old.

Invitations would be sent for further talks starting on February 13 and it would be up to Serbian and Kosovo Albanian leaders to decide whether to turn up. The former Finnish president mediated months of largely fruitless talks in 2006.

There was no point in waiting for a new government to be formed following Serbia's inconclusive election last month, he said. "Whether it's now or a little bit later, the same people would be on either side of the table."

Ahtisaari said he hoped to send the final plan to the U.N. Security Council by the end of March.

The European Union urged both sides to respond "positively and constructively" to Ahtisaari's proposals. The State Department said the proposal "is fair and balanced. It is a blueprint for a stable, prosperous and multi-ethnic Kosovo".

Kosovo has been run by the U.N. since 1999 when NATO bombing forced Milosevic to withdraw troops accused of killing 10,000 Albanians during a counter-insurgency war. About 100,000 ethnic Serbs remain. Some predict violence and secession, and both NATO and the U.N. mission have made contingency plans for a crisis.

"There is nothing more we can do," said Kosovo Serb accountant Milica Knezevic, "there's no life for us here."

Ahtisaari said in Pristina that the Contact Group guiding diplomacy on Kosovo -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia -- would not accept the partition of Kosovo, which would entail slicing off the mainly Serb north.

Serb premier Kostunica said the envoy's proposals were "illegitimate". He is urging all parties in the next government to solemnly pledge to cut Serb ties with any country recognising Kosovo's independence, including major Western powers.

(Additional reporting by Beti Bilandzic, Monika Lajhner, Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade and Fatos Bytyci and Shaban Buza in Pristina)