EU seeks Kosovo unity after independence pledge

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BRUSSELS, Nov 19 (Reuters) The European Union will try to find a common line today on how to deal with a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo after ex-guerrilla Hashim Thaci won a weekend general election.

Thaci, tipped to become prime minister of the breakaway Serbian province after Saturday's ballot, said parliament would declare independence immediately after a December 10 deadline for international mediation efforts.

While the United States and most EU states back Kosovo independence, half a dozen EU capitals are still reluctant to support any such move without formal UN blessing.

''There is a perception that we (the EU) should be in the lead on this and that to do that, we must get our act together,'' said one EU diplomat, who requested anonymity.

Several states neighbouring the Balkans plus Germany and Spain are most hesitant to back a unilateral declaration.

But diplomats say both Madrid and Berlin can be brought round if it is clear that all attempts to reach a compromise between Serbia and Kosovo's 90-per cent ethnic Albanian majority have been made.

Wolfgang Ischinger, the German diplomat leading mediation alongside US and Russian counterparts, is due to meet Serb and Kosovo Albanian leaders in Brussels tomorrow.

Few participants hold out much hope for a breakthrough. The mass boycott of Saturday's parliamentary elections by Kosovo Serbs -- in protest against the wide support for independence among Kosovo Albanian politicians -- only underlined the divide.

A new mediation effort has been scheduled for November 26, two weeks before the December 10 deadline the European Union and the United States have set for reaching a compromise.

Serbia has offered broad autonomy, but the Kosovo Albanians say they will accept nothing less than independence.

Diplomats played down the chances of mediators offering the two sides an interim compromise that ignored the issue of independence, an idea floated by some close to the process.

Such a ''status-neutral'' agreement would try to regulate relations between Pristina and Belgrade without pre-judging any future move to decide Kosovo's final status.

One diplomat from an EU state in favour of Kosovo independence said the idea was unworkable because Belgrade and Serb ally Russia would only agree to it if EU states guaranteed not to recognise any unilateral independence of Kosovo.

''We would say no and that's the end of that,'' he said.

According to a draft statement to be issued after today's talks, the EU will note ''grave concern over the deteriorating political situation'' in Bosnia, referring to deadlock between ethnic Serbs, Muslims and Croats over institutional reforms.

European diplomats say tensions from Kosovo are spilling over into the tiny Balkan state. Tentative EU plans to begin reducing a 2,500-strong EU peace force in Bosnia have been shelved for now, they say.

REUTERS DKS BST0550

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