Serbs, Albanians totally opposed on Kosovo

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BADEN, Austria, Nov 26 (Reuters) Serb and Albanian leaders clashed over the future of Kosovo today even before sitting down to negotiations and mediators said compromise between the sides seemed impossible.

Counting on Western support, Kosovo is threatening to declare independence from Serbia, which, with support from Moscow, refuses to let the province go.

''Serbia is a sovereign, free, democratic and internationally recognised state. Serbia will not let an inch of its territory be taken away,'' Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told reporters as he arrived for the talks in this Austrian spa town.

Kosovo Albanian prime minister-designate Hashim Thaci said there would be no backing down from the demand for statehood, and no extension of the talks beyond December 10, as Serbia's ally Russia says it will ''insist'' upon.

''This is the last meeting, after two years of talks,'' Thaci told Reuters. ''We can negotiate for 100 years more with Serbia but for the independence of Kosovo we can have no compromise.'' Thaci said the Baden meetings would not be a waste of time if both sides displayed good will in discussing future relations. But Serbia said the Albanians had to give way.

''The ball is in the court of the Albanian delegation today,'' Serbian President Boris Tadic said. ''I hope that we are going to have an agreement that will be mutually acceptable ... otherwise we are going to have instability in the region.'' RUSSIA URGES EXTRA TIME Russia has stepped in to head off a threatened declaration of independence by Kosovo, saying it will insist on the extension of negotiations beyond the Dec. 10 date by which the 'troika' of mediators must report to the United Nations.

Russian envoy Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko said there was ''no chance of a breakthrough'' in Baden but Moscow would demand an extension of the talks beyond this round, which the West says is the final effort.

Asked if he saw any reason for an extension, European Union envoy Wolfgang Ischinger said: ''My answer is 'No'.'' ''It's not for the troika, and not for members of the troika, to speculate about what might happen after the 10th. Our mandate ends and this opportunity which the international community has offered through the troika ends on the 10th ,'' he said.

These talks, due to end Wednesday morning, are the 6th round of a fresh, last-chance search for a deal launched at the end of August after Russia's threat to veto a Western-backed plan granting Kosovo independence.

All sides are braced for a declaration of independence by the U.N.-run province in the next three months, with recognition following quickly from major Western powers who in 1999 unleashed NATO bombers to end a wave of ethnic cleansing by Serb forces trying to crush a guerrilla insurgency.

Serbia last week instructed government ministers to draw up an 'Action Plan' in the event of a unilateral declaration - ''the blackest scenario,'' said deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic.

Analysts predict roadblocks, obstruction of trade and electricity supplies and possibly the establishment of Serbian-controlled areas in Kosovo, similar to those set up in Bosnia and Croatia 16 years ago.

''We are very much aware that with a declaration of independence ... we are going to be faced with some challenges,'' outgoing Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku said yesterday. ''We have nowhere to go and we are ready to face all the challenges.'' REUTERS PD VC1942

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