Serbia warns of "frozen conflict" if Kosovo splits

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BELGRADE, Oct 18 (Reuters) Europe will have an unresolved conflict at its heart if Kosovo Albanians declare independence and create an ethnic fault line with Kosovo Serbs, Serbian President Boris Tadic warned today.

In an interview with Austrian newspapers ahead of a new round of talks in Vienna next week, Tadic said the breakaway province would split along ethnic lines, with Serbs in their northern redoubt rejecting and defying Albanian rule.

Serbia had no plan ready if its bid to stave off independence with an offer of far-reaching autonomy fails to change Kosovo Albanian minds, Tadic said.

''If Kosovo declares its independence unilaterally then we will end up with a frozen conflict,'' he told Austria's Kurier.

''First of all, the Kosovo Serbs would not recognise such an independence -- no doubt about that. And how would the Albanians implement their rules in those areas where Serbs make up a majority of 90 percent?'' In Kosovo, ethnic Albanian Prime Minister Agim Ceku said a unilateral declaration of independence was increasingly on the cards for the territory of two million, which has been under UN control and NATO protection for the past eight years.

''I always think it is fairer to ask forgiveness for any action rather than ask permission for an action,'' Ceku told reporters in Kosovo's capital city, Pristina.

''Independence of Kosovo should happen without any delay,'' Ceku said. Kosovo would prefer to get it from the UN Security Council but ''more and more we see this will not happen''.

PERMANENT PEACEKEEPING? About 120,000 Serbs still live in Kosovo, nearly half of them in a well-defined enclave which backs onto Serbia proper and has resisted Pristina's authority with Serb backing.

Ceku said Kosovo was ''ready to deal with'' the security, political and economic challenges of raising its flag with recognition only from sympatheitc Western powers.

The European Union would take on a supervisory role for several years and the NATO-led peacekeeping force would stay on.

But Tadic foresaw a quasi-permanent fault line, such as that which has divided Cyprus for the past 30 years, a clear warning to EU leaders that, rather than hope Serbia will concede independence, they should prepare for a costly and indefinite troop presence and the problems associated with division.

Coupled with Ceku's repeated statements of resolve to go ahead with a claim of statehood, the threat held out little hope of a breakthrough when the two sides meet in Vienna next Monday for a third round of internationally-mediated talks.

Serbia says it is ready to concede full self-government to Kosovo, short of legal sovereignty, foreign policy powers, border control and a seat at the United Nations.

Kosovo's population is 90 percent Albanian and opposes a return to rule by Serbia, whose forces inflicted thousands of casualties during their 1998-99 war on Kosovo separatists and at one point drove 800,000 Albanians out of the country.

Some analysts suggest the only compromise they could arrive at would be a fudged solution that allows the Albanians to assert Kosovo is independent while the Serbs can say it is not.

REUTERS PD PM1815

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