Envoys to try to avoid stand-off at Kosovo talks

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VIENNA, Oct 22 (Reuters) International envoys today mediating in talks on the future of Serbia's breakaway Kosovo will try to stop them immediately coming to a standstill on the independence issue, the European Union's envoy said.

The envoys have until December 10 to bridge the chasm between Serbia's offer of broad autonomy for the province and the Kosovo Albanian demand for statehood after eight years under UN stewardship.

Speaking before a meeting of leaders of Serbia and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, Wolfgang Ischinger said the three envoys would stress points of potential agreement rather than risk a stand-off over independence.

''Without some real help from the Contact Group and the international community the two sides on their own steam would not be able to reach agreement,'' the German diplomat told reporters.

Ischinger and his American and Russian colleagues have drafted 14 points of potential agreement between the two sides, to be discussed at the third round of talks.

The document says Belgrade ''will not govern'' Kosovo. But it avoids reference to independence, which is the Albanians' non-negotiable demand.

Russia, principal backer of Serbia, disputes the December 10 deadline. But Washington is pushing the European Union to stand firm and recognise Kosovo independence in the likely absence of a UN Security Council resolution.

Ischinger said he remained realistic about the prospect of finding a deal where 13 months of U.N.-led negotiations this year and last had failed. ''I would be very surprised if it would be very easy,'' he said.

NATO ON ALERT Serbia and its ally Russia say the December deadline stacks the deck in favour of the Albanians, who feel they can simply wait out the clock and declare independence, leaving the Serbs to carry out their threat of diplomatic reprisals.

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to drive out Serb forces killing and expelling Albanian civilians in an indiscriminate bid to crush a guerrilla insurgency.

It dropped off the international agenda for years until Albanian riots in 2004 persuaded the West that legal limbo was not sustainable and work started on an independence solution, only to be thwarted by Serbia backed by Moscow.

NATO, leading a force of 16,000 troops in Kosovo, is now braced for violence if frustrated Albanians lose patience and take matters into their own hands.

A revolt in the Serb-dominated north, where the UN mission has failed to stamp its authority, might also trigger violence in Albanian areas of Macedonia and southern Serbia's Presevo Valley, analysts warn.

US State Department spokesman Tom Casey twice last week said Washington favoured supervised independence for Kosovo if no agreement could be arrived at by December 10. The 27-member European Union is split over how to act.

Citing EU sources, the Kosovo daily Koha Ditore today reported that US envoy Frank Wisner had told European ambassadors at the United Nations to prepare for ''important decisions'' on Kosovo in January.

REUTERS SG VC1510

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