New bid to break Kosovo stalemate as deadline nears

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BRUSSELS, Nov 20 (Reuters) Serbian and Kosovo Albanian leaders meet today to try to reach a compromise over the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo as a Dec. 10 deadline for a deal draws near.

While few expect a breakthrough after months of fruitless wrangling, Western capitals want all options to be explored. If the talks fail, leaders of the province's majority Albanians have vowed to declare independence regardless.

''We feel that no stone must go unturned,'' said France's Europe Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet ahead of talks in Brussels between the two sides, due to be shepherded by a ''troika'' of EU, U.S. and Russian mediators.

''We'll have a good troika session today and I am quite confident it will be a productive one,'' said Wolfgang Ischinger, the German diplomat leading the negotiations, as he arrived for a preliminary meeting with his US and Russian counterparts.

Ischinger said he would confer with them on whether to float a so-called ''status-neutral'' proposal to regulate ties between Pristina and Belgrade without pre-judging any future move to decide Kosovo's final status.

The idea has its origins in a 1972 pact that normalised ties between West and East Germany without prejudging the question of unification, which only happened 18 years later after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

But some diplomats argue Serbia and Russia would only agree to such a pact if EU capitals in return gave guarantees that they would not recognise Kosovo independence in the meantime -- something most European countries would not be willing to do.

Serbia has offered broad autonomy for the 90 perc ent ethnic Albanian province, whose leaders say nothing short of full independence will do.

Beyond today, at least one more ''troika'' meeting with Serb and Kosovo Albanian leaders is scheduled. Serbia rejects the Dec 10 date as an artificial deadline, arguing it has discouraged the Kosovo Albanians from serious talks.

The United States backs Kosovo independence and British Europe Minister Jim Murphy said ''well over 20'' of the bloc's 27 states agreed, without naming those who were reluctant.

Belgrade said ahead of the talks that a declaration of independence by the Albanian majority in Kosovo would lead to new secessionist moves in the Balkans.

''It would not be the final stage of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, but the first stage of new disintegration and secession in the Balkans,'' said Serbia's Kosovo minister, Slobodan Samardzic, without further elaborating.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt raised the same concern yesterday, saying hasty independence could spark similar moves from ethnic Serbs in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica and spark tensions among Serbs, Muslims and Croats in tiny Bosnia.

''We need a soft landing rather than a big crash. The Balkans is rather a fragile place,'' he said.

REUTERS PD KP1515

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