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Serb objections mar second round of Kosovo talks

Written by: Staff

VIENNA, Mar 17 (Reuters) Serbs and ethnic Albanians met in Vienna today for a second round of talks on the future of Kosovo, marred at the outset by Serb objections to the presence of a former guerrilla leader Belgrade accuses of terrorism.

The two sides opened direct talks last month, seven years since late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic went to war with NATO and lost control of the southern Serbian province to the United Nations.

After a timid first round, the gloves came off today as the Serbs submitted a formal protest to UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari over the Kosovo Albanian delegation's choice of former rebel commander Hashim Thaci as leader.

''This is a man convicted of terrorism in 1997 and is under investigation in Belgrade for war crimes,'' said Serb negotiator Aleksander Simic. ''We told Mr Ahtisaari that this is not good for the future of the negotiations.'' Thaci shrugged off the objections. ''The dark past will be buried tomorrow with Milosevic in Serbia,'' he told reporters.

Milosevic died at the weekend four years into his war crimes trial and will be buried under a lime tree at his family home in central Serbia tomorrow.

Today's meeting continues a discussion of how to devolve power to the Serb minority, part of a ''bottom-up'' approach adopted by Ahtisaari as he grapples with one of Europe's most intractable diplomatic conundrums.

''DESTRUCTIVE'' The province of 2 million people has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombed to drive out Milosevic's forces accused by the West of atrocities against Albanian civilians in a 2-year war with Thaci's Kosovo Liberation Army.

The 90-per cent ethnic Albanian majority says Milosevic lost Kosovo in 1999 and will settle for nothing less than independence.

Serbia argues this would mean amputating sacred land central to the Serb identity for 1,000 years.

Some form of independence appears almost certain. But Western powers want the Albanians to make concessions to the Kosovo Serbs, ghettoised and targeted by sporadic violence since the end of the war, when around half the Serb population fled.

Belgrade has proposed the creation of a Serb entity within Kosovo, with special links to the rest of Serbia. The Kosovo Albanians say this means ethnic partition. They are offering more modest decentralisation, but no links to Belgrade.

''Belgrade's ideas are destructive,'' Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu said in an interview with Austrian newspaper Die Presse.

''Serbia wants the division of Kosovo. Their rhetoric shows that for them the war over Kosovo continues.'' The Kosovo delegation baulked at the agenda for today's meeting, which included ''inter-municipal cooperation and cross-boundary cooperation'' -- something the West says Albanians must accept if they are to offer the Serbs a future.


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