UNITED NATIONS, Sep 28 (Reuters) Major powers appealed to Serbia and Kosovo Albanians to seek common ground in last-ditch negotiations on the future of the UN-administered breakaway Serbian province.
Foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy united behind their mediators on the eve of the first face-to-face talks between the two sides to press them to avoid another crisis in the Western Balkans.
''There are responsibilities on both sides as this process continues,'' British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters after a meeting of the so-called Contact Group yesterday.
''Representatives in Belgrade and in Pristina need to engage ...
with real constructive spirit.'' Serbia earlier warned the United Nations of ''unforeseeable consequences'' that could destabilize the world if Kosovo declared independence unilaterally when the talks conclude in December, and Western nations recognized the new state.
Serbian President Boris Tadic urged the UN General Assembly to avoid creating what he called a dangerous legal precedent.
Participants said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Belgrade's ally with UN Security Council veto power, bluntly told Western nations in the Contact Group to stop saying Kosovo's independence was inevitable.
Such statements gave the Kosovo Albanians no incentive to negotiate seriously, he was quoted as saying.
One European participant put chances of an agreement at barely 10 percent but said the negotiations could at least smooth the way for a more amicable separation, even if Serbia was unable to accept the principle of independence for a province where Serbs have deep religious and historical roots.
AUTONOMY Tadic said Kosovo Albanian leaders were threatening to declare independence on December 11 if the talks failed and warned the world against recognition.
''Following a one-sided recognition of Kosovo's independence, the international legal order would never be the same,'' he said. Separatist movements everywhere would seize on the precedent, he said.
Tadic reaffirmed Belgrade's position that independence for Kosovo was unacceptable and said Serbia was willing to offer broad autonomy in line with European norms -- a stance the West calls unrealistic and Kosovo's 2 million Albanians reject.
NATO waged an air war to drive Serbian forces out of the province in 1999 and end ethnic cleansing against the Albanians in Belgrade's crackdown on separatist guerrillas. Kosovo has been in legal limbo under UN supervision since then.
Asked what Tadic meant by ''unforeseeable consequences,'' Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told Reuters: ''What we certainly can't rule out is severe instability that will be hard to contain.'' Asked about the risk of violence if there is a stalemate and independence is declared, a senior US official said the time for ''hand-wringing and dithering'' was over.
''There are no easy options. It will be rough. The best scenario involves some very difficult situations in the north and elsewhere but a failure to decide -- dithering -- produces worse options,'' the official said, on condition of anonymity.
A senior European official said it was important the United States was willing to act jointly with the EU in the aftermath of the Kosovo negotiations and not go it alone.
Miliband earlier told reporters that a plan for EU-supervised independence for Kosovo drafted by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari remained the basis for a solution.
Issues such as minority rights, administrative devolution and constitutional provisions were negotiable, he said.
Russia used the threat of a veto in July to force the United States, France and Britain to drop a planned U.N.
Security Council resolution endorsing the Ahtisaari plan.
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 that is closely tied to the Serbian hinterland.
Reuters KK VP0540