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Serb referendum has no bearing on Kosovo-US envoy

Written by: Staff
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PRISTINA, Serbia, Oct 25 (Reuters) The United States today dismissed Serbian claims that a referendum this weekend on a new constitution could restore Belgrade's lost sovereignty over Kosovo.

Serbia has been rallying voters to back its new constitution as the best way to halt the secession of the country's southern province, where the ethnic Albanian majority expects to clinch independence around the turn of the year.

The draft, which replaces the defunct constitution of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, declares the United Nations-run territory of Kosovo an integral part of Serbia.

''What happens to you is a Kosovar matter, and an international matter,'' Ambassador Frank Wisner, Washington's Kosovo envoy, told reporters in the capital Pristina.

''It is not a matter of Serbian sovereignty, which changed when the UN agreed on 1244,'' he said.

UN Security Council Resolution 1244 was adopted in June 1999 after 78 days of NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of atrocities and ethnic cleansing in a two-year war with Kosovo Albanian guerrillas.

The resolution placed Kosovo under UN stewardship, and reserved a decision on its future for the Security Council.

Seven years later, UN mediator Martti Ahtisaari is due to make his recommendation by the end of 2006. Diplomats predict he will propose a form of independence under European Union supervision, amputating land many Serbs consider their religious heartland and cradle of their nation.

Wisner told the Kosovo Albanians, who make up 90 per cent the province's two million people, they should not jeopardise the progress made towards a settlement.

''We stand on the edge of an agreement that will produce final status,'' he said after meeting Kosovo's negotiating team.

''Serbs in Kosovo will vote and that is their right. I count on Albanians to let the process go calmly.'' Around 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, many in enclaves guarded by troops of the 16,000-strong NATO-led peace force. They are expected to turn out in large numbers in the referendum on Saturday and Sunday.

The proposed constitution, the fruit of rare consensus between government and opposition in Serbia, is expected to pass the referendum, and trigger early elections in December.

The US and EU have indicated that elections in December could delay a decision on Kosovo into 2007, for fear of driving voters into the arms of ultranationalists.

REUTERS BDP BD1744

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