Serbia, Kosovo start face-to-face talks

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NEW YORK, Sep 28 (Reuters) Representatives of Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians opened the first face-to-face talks on the future of the breakaway Serbian province with international mediators today in New York.

Major powers have set a December 10 deadline for an agreement on the final status of Kosovo, which has been in legal limbo under UN administration since 1999, when NATO waged an air war to drive out Serbian forces and halt ethnic cleansing.

Serbia, backed by Russia with its UN veto power, rejects independence for Kosovo. But the territory's 2 million ethnic Albanians -- 90 per cent of the population -- will settle for nothing less.

The United States and the European Union say the solution should be based on a plan by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who advocated EU-supervised independence, with broad autonomy for the Kosovo Serbs.

But Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica again ruled out independence in his address to the New York talks, and promoted Belgrade's proposal of what he called ''substantial autonomy,'' Serb news agencies reported.

''Everyone should be aware that it is dangerously foolish to believe that a solution can be imposed on Serbia, and that Serbia would ever recognize that on its territory there exists an independent Kosovo state,'' he was quoted as saying.

Foreign ministers of the major power Contact Group appealed to Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians yesterday to seek common ground in the last-ditch negotiations.

Foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy united behind their mediators on the eve of the talks to press the two sides 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. ''Representatives in Belgrade and in Pristina need to engage ...with real constructive spirit.'' The mediators are Wolfgang Ischinger of Germany for the EU, Frank Wisner of the United States and Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko of Russia.

''Ministers reiterated that an early resolution of Kosovo's status is crucial to the stability and security of the Western Balkans and Europe as a whole,'' a Contact Group statement said.

Serbia warned the United Nations on Thursday of ''unforeseeable consequences'' that could destabilize the world if Kosovo declared independence unilaterally when the talks conclude in December and Western nations recognized it.

REUTERS AE RAI2310

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