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Serbs, ethnic Albanians discuss Kosovo
( 2003-10-15 09:22) (Agencies)

In the first face-to-face talks between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians since their 1999 war, rival leaders clashed Tuesday over the future of the ethnically tense Balkan province.

Overall view of the first postwar talks on Kosovo between Serbs and ethnic Albanians held at the Federal Chancellery in Vienna, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2003.  [AP]
The symbolic U.N.-sponsored talks were supposed to avoid the contentious issue of Kosovo's future status: whether it will gain independence, as demanded by the ethnic Albanians, or remain a part of Serbia, as called for by the Belgrade leadership.

But Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders insisted Tuesday on outright independence, while Serbs rejected such plans. The ethnic rivals refused even a ceremonial handshake before the session started at the 19th century, Baroque-style headquarters of Austria's chancellor.

Since the end of the war, Kosovo formally still a province of Serbia and Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia has been administered by the United Nations.

"My country, Kosovo," wants to become a part of the European Union and NATO, Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova told the gathering. "This means a democratic, peaceful and independent Kosovo."

"Independence of Kosovo is an irreversible process," added Nexhat Daci, the president of Kosovo's parliament. "Kosovo is prepared to achieve that at any price."

But in a strongly worded speech, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic made it clear that the republic did not recognize Kosovo as anything more than "one of its parts."

"There can be no dialogue if it is not clear to everyone that we are not talking as representatives of two states," he said. "Instead of using this Vienna meeting for a dialogue on burning problems, Pristina officials keep on describing Kosovo as an independent state."

Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, said the three-hour meeting achieved little more than "that we sat at the same table."

In Washington, the State Department said "the U.S. considers this dialogue extremely important, and calls upon all sides to fully participate in this process."

The talks marked the first time the former foes met face-to-face since the war ended in June 1999, when a 78-day NATO bombing campaign halted former President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown against independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.

The bloodshed left up to 10,000 dead and hundreds of thousands expelled, most of them ethnic Albanians. Milosevic is on trial at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, for his part in atrocities in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans in the 1990s.

When the war ended, some 200,000 Serbs and other minorities fled Kosovo, fearing revenge attacks by ethnic Albanian extremists. Only a few hundred returned and now live in isolated enclaves.

Zivkovic and other Serb leaders who ousted Milosevic in 2000 have pledged a peaceful resolution of the Kosovo problem, but have rejected independence for the province considered the medieval cradle of Serbia's statehood.

International mediators stressed that the final status of Kosovo will be determined by the U.N. Security Council, and that it was a major achievement just to bring the wartime foes to the negotiating table.

"Now, did anyone expect spectacular breakthrough, did we expect the whole agenda of these technical and difficult issues to be sorted out? Of course not," said Chris Patten, the head of the EU's external relations commission.

"But people got into the same room, they began addressing one another ... the most difficult step is always the first one," Patten said.

The Vienna talks were intended merely to pave the way for future negotiations on everyday issues burdening impoverished and war-ravaged Kosovo, such as energy, transportation, missing persons and the return of refugees.

Harri Holkeri, Kosovo's U.N. administrator, said that ethnically mixed commissions to deal with those issues will start meeting in Belgrade and in Kosovo's capital of Pristina in November.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, EU security chief Javier Solana and other senior foreign officials attended Tuesday's session to act as "guarantors" for future negotiations, U.N. officials said.

Tuesday's meeting was seriously undermined by the absence of Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi, a key ethnic Albanian leader, who refused to participate because of his mistrust of Belgrade. Serbia's delegation also balked before agreeing to attend.

 
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