Serbs, Kosovars far apart over future of Kosovo

U.N. special envoy sees no sign of progress

meeting shows divide over independence


VIENNA, Austria -- Serb and Kosovar leaders reluctantly met face to face yesterday for the first time since NATO bombs drove Serbian forces out of the Albanian-majority province in 1999.

A United Nations special envoy called the meeting in Vienna, Austria, to make progress on Kosovo's future status: Kosovars want independence and Serbia opposes division.

Statements after the meeting made clear that the sides are far apart and cast doubt on a negotiated solution. Kosovars and Serbs refused to appear together at the news conference; each side held its own briefing.

Asked if there was any sign of the way to a future deal, U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari said, "No, I would be lying if I said so. They are as far apart as possible: Belgrade would accept everything but independence, while Kosovo Albanians will accept nothing but independence."

A participant described the meeting as "monologues" by each side.

Kosovo has been governed as a U.N. protectorate since 1999, when NATO forced out Serbian troops.

There have been a number of meetings in Vienna with teams from both sides, but this is the first that involved leaders of the two groups, including Serbian President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, and Kosovo's prime minister, Agim Ceku, a former rebel commander who fought the Serbs.

More meetings are scheduled for August and September when Ahtisaari plans to give a report and recommendation to the U.N. Security Council.

Western powers and the United Nations are pushing for a deal by year's end; they want to free up some of the 17,000 NATO troops on patrol there and avoid a renewal of violence in the territory. Russia, a veto holder in the Security Council and a longtime backer of Serbia, has cautioned against any "artificial timetable."

In the absence of an accord, the United Nations - in consultation with Western powers and Russia - will likely impose an arrangement under which Kosovo would gain conditional independence. Draft proposals by the European Union include a European special representative to oversee international assistance and financial aid. Kosovo would have to satisfy a number of criteria before it could gain full independence, according to diplomats who asked not to be named because the proposals are still taking shape.

The arrangement bears similarities to the one the EU fashioned for Bosnia, which had mixed results. Bosnia remains a fragile country, with a barely functional government and a marginally viable economy.

Sensitive issues for the Serbs in Kosovo's potential independence include how to guarantee safety for the Serb minority, which has felt isolated and embattled. Many experts believe that if Kosovo becomes independent, many of the more than 100,000 Serbs will become refugees, adding to Serbia's economic troubles.

Serbian forces launched a brutal crackdown in the province in 1999, killing about 10,000 Kosovars and forcing 800,000 to flee. When the Kosovars returned with NATO backing, reprisal killings and ethnic cleansing of Serbs ensued, which forced nearly half the Serb population to flee the province.

Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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