BRUSSELS, Nov 18 (Reuters) International mediators launch new talks with Serb and Kosovo Albanian leaders on Tuesday in a bid to break the deadlock over Kosovo's future, but diplomats say prospects of a deal remain bleak.
Wolfgang Ischinger, the German diplomat leading negotiations alongside US and Russian mediators, was due to confer with EU foreign ministers on Monday on ways to narrow entrenched Serb and Albanian differences over the breakaway Serbian province.
''I don't think anyone is that hopeful of a breakthrough on Tuesday,'' said one diplomat, adding that EU capitals would in the meantime try to overcome their national differences on whether to recognise any future Kosovo independence claim.
A parliamentary election in Kosovo yesterday was marked by a mass boycott of Kosovo Serbs to protest against a desire for independence that is broadly backed by parties across Kosovo's political spectrum.
A new mediation effort has already been scheduled for November 26, two weeks before the Dec. 10 date the EU and the United States have set as a deadline for reaching a compromise.
Diplomats reacted cautiously to unconfirmed media reports that the international mediators saw no chance of a deal on Kosovo's status and wanted instead to propose an interim compromise that ignored the issue of independence.
Such a ''status-neutral'' agreement would try merely to regulate relations between Pristina and Belgrade without pre-judging any future move to decide Kosovo's final status.
''In return for agreeing such a thing, Serbia would want a guarantee from EU states that they would not recognise Kosovo independence. We would say no and that's the end of that,'' said a diplomat from one EU state in favour of Kosovo independence.
CONCERN ON BOSNIA A second European diplomat noted that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana had given Ischinger a mandate to try all options to bring the two sides together, but also expressed doubts as to whether a ''status-neutral'' offer would be floated.
''Solana has encouraged him to be creative, to leave no stone unturned. A number of formulas are being looked at,'' said the envoy.
Serbia has offered broad autonomy, but the Kosovo Albanians say they will accept nothing less than independence, eight years after NATO went to war to halt Serb atrocities during a counter-insurgency war and the United Nations took control.
Kosovo Albanian leaders threaten to declare independence and seek recognition from Western powers once talks end.
The United States and a broad majority of EU states support supervised independence for Kosovo as proposed by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari but blocked by UN Security Council veto-holder and Serb ally Russia.
Around half a dozen EU states, including several geographically close to the Balkans but others such as Germany, worry about backing any independence claim that does not have UN Security Council backing.
According to a draft of a statement to be issued by EU foreign ministers after their talks on Monday, the EU will also note ''grave concern over the deteriorating political situation'' in Bosnia, referring to the deadlock between ethnic Serbs, Muslims and Croats over institutional reforms.
European diplomats say tensions from Kosovo are spilling over into the tiny Balkan state and note that previous EU plans to begin reducing a 2,500-strong EU peace force in Bosnia have been shelved.
Reuters SZ RS1821