Serbs plea for delay as Kosovo slips away

By Douglas Hamilton
Monday, February 5, 2007; 4:58 PM

BELGRADE (Reuters) - President Boris Tadic will ask major powers to delay further talks on the fate of Serbia's breakaway Kosovo province for at least 10 days to allow the country to convene a new parliament elected two weeks ago.

"I will call on Contact Group ambassadors to bring the date of the resumption of talks in Vienna into line with the constitutive session of the new Serbian parliament, which in effect means moving the timetable by 10 days," Beta news agency quoted him as saying on Monday.

Tadic said he would make the appeal to visiting Washington envoy Frank Wisner on Tuesday and to European Union ministers due to hold talks in Belgrade mid-week, Beta said.

The Contact Group -- made up of Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Britain and the United States -- has guided diplomacy on the United Nations-run province for nearly seven years, since Serb forces were expelled by NATO in June 1999.

The powers postponed the launch of a plan for Kosovo last November to avoid inflaming the nationalist vote in Serbia's January 21 election, in which no party won an outright majority. Analysts say further delay could carry the risk of violence in Kosovo.

But Serbian party leaders attempting to form a new governing coalition are dithering over how Serbia should respond to the plan presented last Friday by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which would grant Kosovo a form of supervised independence.

Ahtisaari wants Serbs and representatives of Kosovo's 90 percent Albanian majority to hold a further series of talks in Vienna starting on February 13, to determine if compromise might still be achieved.


Serbia's hardline prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, has said there is no need for further talks on an "illegitimate" plan that would violate Serbian territorial integrity.

But diplomatic support for outright rejection of the plan appeared to wilt over the weekend, with an unexpected warning to Kostunica from Russia, to be "constructive."

Kostunica had told Serbs that Russia would block Kosovo's independence at the U.N. Security Council. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "President Vladimir Putin has never said he would use Moscow's veto ... over Kosovo."

Serbia's Blic daily cited government sources on Monday as saying Russia was also warning Kostunica that "if Serbia rejects everything (by spurning the Vienna talks), Russia will not support it, on the grounds that it is not being constructive."

U.S. envoy Frank Wisner, visiting Kosovo on Monday, said Washington believes the Ahtisaari plan "is an excellent proposal" and he was going to Moscow to secure Russia's backing.

In an interview with the BBC, Ahtisaari declined to specify what final status he was proposing for Kosovo but acknowledged that both sides "are reading the document in such a manner that it aims toward independence, which is supervised by the international community."

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999 when NATO bombing led by the United States forced late leader Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw troops accused of killing 10,000 Albanians during a counter-insurgency war with separatists.

Serbs cherish Kosovo as the cradle of their nation. But they are now only five percent of the population.

It has been clear for months that Ahtisaari would not back a Serb demand to reactivate sovereignty over Kosovo, but "Belgrade has managed to enter the last phase of talks on the future status of Kosovo without a parliament, without a government and without a negotiating team," the liberal daily Danas said.

(additional reporting by Ellie Tzortzi and Matt Robinson)

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