EU urges Kosovo not to rush towards independence

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BRUSSELS, Nov 19 (Reuters) European Union countries today urged Serbia's breakaway Kosovo not to rush into a declaration of independence, with its backers insisting any such move should be coordinated internationally.

Former guerrilla Hashim Thaci, who is expected to become prime minister of the majority ethnic Albanian province after Saturday's election, said parliament would declare independence after a December 10 deadline for international mediation efforts.

The United States backs independence for Kosovo, but the EU is divided on the issue. Some EU member states are reluctant to support any such move without the blessing of the United Nations or at least broad international support.

''Kosovo should have her independence (but) it shouldn't be an unmanaged unilateral declaration. It should be one that is coordinated with the international community,'' British Europe Minister Jim Murphy told reporters, arriving for an EU meeting.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said Thaci's call was not a surprise but urged Kosovo Albanians and Serbs not to exacerbate their already growing tensions.

''The EU has asked all parties in this climate to behave carefully. That applies to both Belgrade and Pristina.'' Wolfgang Ischinger, a German diplomat leading mediation alongside US and Russian officials, is due to meet Serb and Kosovo Albanian leaders in Brussels tomorrow.

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

''We have explored almost every humanly known option for squaring the circle of the Kosovo status issue,'' Ischinger told a breakfast conference in Brussels.

''Regardless of how exactly this process will end ... it is clear no one will be able to say that this was not a meaningful and intense and working negotiating process,'' he added.

CHALLENGE FOR EUROPE Serbia has offered broad autonomy, but the Kosovo Albanians say they will accept nothing less than independence. Western diplomats are concerned that Serbia and Russia will declare the mediation process a sham after it finishes.

Hajredin Kuci, deputy leader of Thaci's PDK party, qualified Thaci's statement after weekend parliamentary elections about an ''immediate'' declaration after December 10.

''The PDK and its leader Hashim Thaci stick strongly to the stand that the declaration of Kosovo's independence after December 10 would only happen in full coordination with the United States and European Union,'' Kuci told Reuters today.

The EU is anxious to avoid a repeat of its dilemma in the 1990s, when internal splits over how to deal with the Balkans wars showed its ineffectiveness as a foreign policy player.

''This is a European challenge. It is not one we can ask the United States to solve for us,'' said Murphy.

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

Diplomats say 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.

With results from 90 per cent of polling stations counted, independent election monitors said Thaci's Democratic Party (PDK) had come first with 34 per cent, pushing the ruling Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) into second place.

REUTERS SYU KP1750

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