Serbia warns of violence if US "snatches" Kosovo

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BELGRADE, Sep 22 (Reuters) Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica warned the United States and Kosovo Albanians today that they would be responsible for devastating violence if they ''snatch'' Kosovo and declare it independent.

Serbia is offering wide autonomy for Kosovo. The Albanians, who have been under UN rule for eight years, want full independence.

They are to hold direct talks in New York next week, and have until December 10 before a report must go to the UN.

''This time, they will implement a different strategy --unilateral recognition of independent Kosovo,'' Kostunica predicted in an interview with Vecernje Novosti newspaper.

Asked what Serbia could do to prevent that, Kostunica said: ''One must clearly warn of devastating consequences of such violence, which has not happened since the UN was established. And that's what we do all the time.'' He did not elaborate.

Kostunica said he believed a solution could still be found to settle the status of Kosovo on the basis of the United Nations Charter, which upholds Serbian sovereignty over the 90-per cent Albanian majority.

But ''the Albanians, supported especially by their American partners'' were simply waiting for the clock to run out on the 120-day period set for last-ditch negotiations before declaring an impasse and doing what they have planned to do all along.

Responding to a question on whether Serbia would send in troops if Kosovo declared independence, he said: ''Our attention right now is focused on making sure there is no unilateral declaration of independence. And if it happens, to make sure that our ties with our people in the province remain unbroken.'' Only Russia ''is firm in its stand that international law must be respected'', he said. Russia had helped foil a NATO plan to grab Serb territory for the Albanians by stealth, he said.

''The intention was, swiftly, quietly and in the dark so that no one can see it, to snatch a part of territory from Serbia. We have managed to turn on the light and ignite a huge debate,'' he said.

Kostunica reiterated that Serbia would not accept independence for Kosovo. He would ''create conditions for the Serbs in Kosovo to keep faith that they are part of Serbia and that Serbia has not given up on them. They will be treated as rightful citizens of Serbia.'' Serbia's autonomy offer to Kosovo's two million Albanians includes no offer to restore their citizenship in Serbia.

The Albanians have no desire for it, having suffered thousands of casualties at the hands of Serb forces in 1998-99 before NATO intervened to stop the ethnic cleansing of 800,000 -- an aspect of the argument rarely addressed by Kostunica.

About 120,000 Serbs still live in Kosovo, roughly half of them in isolated enclaves protected by a NATO peacekeeping force of 16,000 and the rest in a northern triangle which is closely tied to the Serbian hinterland and could quickly be partitioned.

But a movement of Serb troops into that zone would ignite an immediate crisis.

REUTERS SBC AS1504

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