Kosovo pushes for independence as talks begin

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The Independent Online

Serbs and Kosovo Albanians finally came face-to-face around the negotiating table for talks expected to lead to some form of independence for Kosovo.

As the discussions started in Vienna yesterday, the head of the Kosovo Albanian delegation, Lufti Haziri, called for the status of Kosovo to be resolved as soon as possible, adding: "Independence is coming and we are playing a positive role."

The province is still legally part of Serbia and Montenegro, but it has been under UN protection since Nato air strikes forced Serb troops out in 1999.

The negotiations will centre on guarantees that could be offered to the 100,000 Serbs who remain in enclaves in the province. But the issue has raised fierce passions in Belgrade, and Serb negotiators are under pressure to reject any notion of independence for territory considered sacred by Serbian nationalists.

The timing makes the talks particularly sensitive in Serbia, because it is likely to lose its alliance with Montenegro after a referendum in April on dissolving the union of the two countries. But the international community has made little secret of its belief that Kosovo cannot return to its pre-1999 status under the control of Belgrade. That message was delivered with unusual clarity to Serbian politicians by John Sawers, the political director of the Foreign Office, prompting anger in Serbia.

It marks a sharp change since the immediate aftermath of the Nato bombing campaign, when the international community sought to defer discussion of Kosovo's final status.

Formally, Serbia wants the creation of an autonomous Serb entity with strong ties to Belgrade, an idea rejected by Pristina, which has suggested more modest devolution.