Serbia won't give up 'an inch' of Kosovo

Serbia will not give up “an inch” of Kosovo, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on Monday as talks on the breakaway province’s future entered a critical phase before a United Nations deadline next month.

“Serbia will not let an inch of its territory be taken away,” a defiant Kostunica told reporters at a final round of negotiations before international mediators report back to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders, meanwhile, said they are committed to gaining independence—making a breakthrough unlikely in the last session of talks, which run until Wednesday in the picturesque Austrian spa town of Baden.

The lingering and increasingly bitter deadlock between the rival sides raises the likelihood that Kosovo will follow through on vows to declare independence unilaterally at some point after December 10 if the UN Security Council does not sign off on statehood.

Kosovo’s leaders demand full independence from Serbia, which has offered the province broad autonomy but insists it remain part of Serbia.

Hashim Thaci, a former ethnic Albanian rebel leader who is Kosovo’s incoming new prime minister, said in an interview that independence from Serbia is “our past and present and future”, and the only solution.

But Thaci insisted that any decision will be taken in close cooperation with the United States and the European Union, and he said renewed unrest is out of the question.

“The process will be very peaceful,” he said at the castle hotel where this week’s talks are being held. “Violence is past for Kosovo. Peace is our future.”

Although formally still Serbian territory, the southern province has been run by the UN and Nato since 1999, when the Western military alliance launched an air war that ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Bleak outlook

EU envoy Wolfgang Ischinger, a member of the international “troika” that also includes mediators from the US and Russia, offered a bleak outlook as the talks got under way.

“The troika is offering one last opportunity to seek a negotiated settlement, and I certainly hope both parties seize it,” he said.

But Ischinger, asked whether he saw any signs to warrant more talks even after December 10, paused and then said: “My answer is no.”

Kostunica promised to present “fresh new ideas” in a quest for a compromise, and Thaci pledged to be “very flexible and creative”.
But neither side has made significant concessions, and previous talks have come close to collapse.

Speculation has grown that Kosovo might declare independence early in 2008. Thaci said earlier on Monday that Kosovo is “ready to take our decision”—a reference to a declaration—and said he and other leaders hope the US and the EU will recognise the province as an independent state soon thereafter.

Critics including Russia—an ally of Serbia that insists the UN Security Council have the final say on its future status—contend a unilateral declaration of independence would plunge the Balkans back into turmoil and set a dangerous precedent for separatist movements worldwide.

“I hope we are going to achieve an agreement. Otherwise we are going to have instability in the region,” Serbian President Boris Tadic warned on Monday. “We will do everything in our power to avoid this scenario.”

The closed-door talks in Baden—a town best known for its huge casino—close out a bitter series of meetings between the rival sides since the collapse earlier this year of a blueprint for eventual independence drawn up by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari.

Ahtisaari’s plan called for internationally supervised statehood for Kosovo. But Moscow threatened to veto the proposal at the Security Council, prompting the EU, US and Russia to mount a final attempt at a negotiated settlement.

Kosovo’s leaders pledged to protect the rights of the province’s 100 000-member Serbian minority, but said they will not budge on their drive for statehood. Ethnic Albanians make up 90% of Kosovo’s two million people.

“Our main goal is the independence of Kosovo,” Kosovo’s President Fatmir Sejdiu said as he arrived in Baden. “It is our wish, it is our work all the time, it is our guarantee,” he added.—Sapa-AP

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