Ethnic Albanians, Serbs launch direct postwar talks on Kosovo

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

VIENNA, Austria -- Rival Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders clashed Tuesday in their first face-to-face talks on Kosovo since the 1999 war that led to NATO intervention in the ethnically troubled province.

The largely symbolic launch of the U.N.-sponsored talks avoided the contentious issue of Kosovo's future: independence, as demanded by the ethnic Albanians, or status as part Serbia, as called for by the Belgrade leadership.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian president, Ibrahim Rugova, insisted on Kosovo's independence. Underscoring the strong desire for nationhood, several hundred ethnic Albanians rallied to demand full independence Tuesday in the provincial capital, Pristina.

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

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.

Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, said after the three-hour meeting that there was no direct dialogue and that "the only positive result was that we sat at the same table."

International mediators stressed that the final status of Kosovo has yet to be determined by the U.N. Security Council.

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 supplies, transportation, missing persons and the return of refugees.

"Kosovo is the heart of the Balkan region, not just geographically but also in political and security terms," European Union security chief Javier Solana said.

"Developments there can have important implications for neighboring states ... today's event marks important progress on the road towards greater stability in the Balkan region," he said.

Although U.N. officials emphasized that the talks would not include negotiations on the province's future status, the discussions were important, bringing together formerly implacable enemies.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, European Union security chief Javier Solana and other senior foreign officials attended to act as "guarantors" for future negotiations, one U.N. official said.

"After a bloody war that took place in Kosovo -- after four years of freedom -- an attempt should be made to establish a relationship as normal as possible with the neighbors," said Nexhat Daci, the president of Kosovo's parliament.

But the talks proved too volatile for some key leaders despite the low-key agenda.

Kosovo was represented by a scaled-down delegation after Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi, a key ethnic Albanian leader, refused to participate. Serbia's delegation also balked before agreeing to attend.

Although Kosovo has a president, government and parliament with limited powers, the U.N. administration holds the ultimate authority over decision-making. Rugova holds largely ceremonial powers.

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

The bloodshed left up to 10,000 dead and hundreds of thousands expelled. Most of the victims were ethnic Albanians. Some 200,000 Serbs and other minorities have since fled Kosovo, fearing revenge attacks by ethnic Albanian extremists.

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

Milosevic has since been extradited to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, where he is on trial for his role in Kosovo and other wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.

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