Chances for Kosovo deal fade at leaders' final talks

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This picturesque spa town is famed for its huge casino, making it a fitting venue for international mediators gambling on one last attempt to work out a deal on Kosovo's future.

But as a UN deadline looms, a breakthrough looks unlikely. Serbia warned anew yesterday that it won't give up "an inch" of Kosovo, and the breakaway province's leaders made it equally clear that as far as they're concerned, independence is the only option.

The rival sides' entrenched positions — and a bleak assessment from the chief Western envoy overseeing the talks — raised the likelihood that Kosovo will declare independence unilaterally at some point after Dec. 10: the deadline for mediators to report back to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

EU representative Wolfgang Ischinger, mediating the Baden talks along with US and Russian envoys, made clear that this is "one last opportunity to seek a negotiated settlement."

Asked whether he saw anything to suggest that talks could continue after the deadline, he said: "My answer is no."

Although Kosovo formally remains part of Serbia, 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.

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

"Serbia will not let an inch of its territory be taken away," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said at the talks, which run through Wednesday at a castle hotel in Baden, just south of Vienna.

Later, Kostunica told his ethnic Albanian rivals: "There is enough space in Kosovo both for Serbia to preserve its statehood, its people and its holy shrines and for you to have your own system of separate and autonomous authority."

"Both you and we know full well that the history of our life together has not lasted one nor 10 nor 100 years, but that it has lasted many centuries and that we shall live together in the future as well," he said in prepared remarks.

Hashim Thaci, a former rebel leader who is Kosovo's incoming prime minister, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that independence from Serbia was "our past and present and future" and was the only solution.

But Thaci insisted that any decision would be taken in close cooperation with the US and the European Union, and he said renewed unrest was out of the question.

"The process will be very peaceful," he said. "Violence is past for Kosovo. Peace is our future."

Speculation has grown that an increasingly impatient Kosovo might declare independence early in 2008.

Thaci told AP that Kosovo was "ready to take our decision" — a reference to a declaration — and said he and other leaders hoped the US and the EU would recognize 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 Monday. "We will do everything in our power to avoid this scenario."

The closed-door talks in Baden 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.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated his opposition Monday, accusing the West of fostering "a psychological mood of expectation that Pristina should receive independence."

"Frightening us with violence and disorder if we do not make this or that decision is a most dangerous and slippery path that will reverberate very far beyond Kosovo's boundaries," Lavrov said.

Kosovo's leaders pledged to protect the rights of the province's 100,000-member Serb minority, but said they will not budge on their drive for statehood. Ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people.

"Our main goal is the independence of Kosovo," conceded Fatmir Sejdiu, Kosovo's president.