New bid to break Kosovo deadlock as deadline nears

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BRUSSELS, Oct 14 (Reuters) International mediators will seek once more to cajole Serb and Kosovo Albanian officials into a compromise on the future of the breakaway Serbian province at talks today, but chances of a breakthrough are seen as slim.

With a December 10 deadline for a deal approaching, neither side has given any indication of budging since their leaders failed to break the deadlock at an earlier round of talks on the sidelines of last month's UN General Assembly in New York.

Kosovo Albanians, fed up that their UN-administered province remains in limbo eight years after a NATO bombing campaign to halt Serb atrocities, have threatened to declare independence anyway -- an outcome that could unleash new chaos in the Balkans.

Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic will lead the Serb delegation at today's talks at EU headquarters in Brussels, while Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu and Prime Minister Agim Ceku will head the Albanian side.

The discussions will be shepherded by a team of European, American and Russian mediators -- the so-called ''troika'' -- and while they profess optimism in public, the West is braced to cope with a collapse of negotiations.

The head of the foreign affairs committee in Germany -- one of a handful of EU countries seen most troubled by the prospect of a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo -- said on Friday German peacekeepers would nonetheless legitimately remain there in such an eventuality.

''This would be possible,'' conservative Ruprecht Polenz told Reuters in Berlin of the 2,400-strong German contingent within the NATO-led KFOR peace operation.

''Firstly, UN Resolution 1244 is still in force. Secondly, in the hypothetical case of a unilateral declaration of independence, Pristina would have the possibility to invite the troops stationed there to remain.'' The EU is gearing up to despatch 1,875 police and judicial personnel in the biggest test yet of the bloc's credibility as a security player and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana hinted this month they would be deployed regardless of the talks' outcome.

''We have to be prepared to deploy the ESDP (European Security and Defence Policy) mission ... and we still have to discuss with the UN secretary-general under what potential legal basis that mission could be deployed,'' Solana said.

The latest set of negotiations were launched after UN Security Council veto-holder Russia blocked a UN-sponsored plan that would have set the 90-per cent ethnic Albanian province of two million firmly on the road to independence.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to Moscow this week failed to produce any public sign of a change in the Russian policy that no solution should be imposed on Serbia.

Reuters DKS VP0440

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