Serbia, Kosovo hold ground as direct talks start

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NEW YORK, Sep 28 (Reuters) Leaders of Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians held their first direct talks on the future of the breakaway Serbian province with international mediators today but neither side budged from its position.

The only concrete result of the two-hour meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly appeared to be that the three-way talks would continue, with a new session set for October 14 in Brussels.

''There is no intention to turn back. Of course, at this stage the vision of the future is different, but they are ready to continue these talks,'' Russian mediator Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko told a news conference.

Both sides acknowledged that ''violence, provocation and intimidation would constitute a grave risk for the (current negotiations) as well as for the stability and security of the region,'' according to a joint ''New York Declaration.'' Major powers have set a Dec. 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 percent of the population -- will settle for nothing less and have received Washington's backing.

''Both sides ... indicated to us through this meeting and through their conduct and through the conclusion that they wish this process to continue ... . This is a good sign,'' said European Union mediator Wolfgang Ischinger.

STILL FAR APART While officials used terms like ''cooperative'' and ''constructive'' to define the talks, a joint statement handed to the media made clear how far apart the sides remained.

''The Troika (US, EU and Russian mediators) encouraged the parties to present their proposals in a way that would appeal to the other side,'' the statement said, noting that the Serbs were willing to grant autonomy to Kosovo while the Kosovo Albanians wanted an independent state.

Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu told reporters after the talks that he had put forward ''a treaty of friendship between our two countries as two sovereign and independent nations.'' ''Unfortunately they held steadfast to their position and the views that they had presented several times already,'' he said of the Serbian side.

Serbian President Boris Tadic told journalists: ''We are proposing sustainable and substantial autonomy and we are providing the best possible conditions for the national Albanian ethnic group of Kosovo. We hope that we are going to achieve a compromise solution.'' 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 Kosovo's Serb minority.

Reuters MP VP0232

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