Kosovo sets out on road to independence

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The 15-member council is to recommend that talks on the future status of Kosovo, a territory contested between Serbs and the majority ethnic Albanians, begin as soon as possible.

Meeting in Rome last Thursday, diplomats from the main Western countries that deal with the former Yugoslavia, plus Russia agreed on what will happen today so as to make sure that there are no late hitches.

Ever since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999 the territory has been under the jurisdiction of the UN, although legally it remains a part of Serbia. The process, which will begin today, is expected to end Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo.

The council will be addressed by Kai Eide, the Norwegian diplomat who drew up the report on Kosovo. Within days of the meeting, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General is set to appoint Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president to lead talks.

After a period of shuttle diplomacy he is expected to draw up a draft plan for the future of the territory that will propose what is known as "conditional independence". It means that Kosovo will no longer be part of Serbia but its independence will, for a transitional period, be curtailed, rather like that of Bosnia where policy is shaped by a high level representative of the international community.

While Serbia will resist the ending of its sovereignty over Kosovo, diplomats say that Russia, on whom the Serbian leadership was hoping for support, has already betrayed it.

In 1999, Nato mounted a 78-day bombing campaign against what was then still known as Yugoslavia. The bombing came after talks failed to produce a settlement between Serbs and separatist Albanian guerrillas.

Ever since, Kosovo has been run by the UN although progressively power has been transferred to its own elected authorities. Some 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo out of a total population of 2 million, more than 90 per cent of whom are ethnic Albanians who have consistently shown that they want independence.

Most of those Serbs who remain, live in enclaves some of which have to be protected by Nato-led peacekeepers. In March 2004, ethnic Albanian rioting left 19 dead and some 4,000 Serbs and Roma were ethnically cleansed. In his report, Mr Eide described inter-ethnic relations as "grim".

Serbia will fight a fierce rearguard action to retain sovereignty, if little else, over Kosovo.

Indeed, according to Dusan Batakovic, advisor on Kosovo to Serbian president Boris Tadic: "People think Serbia has given up Kosovo but it is not the case - to the contrary in fact."

Serbia says the Albanians can have virtually anything they want except full independence. Albanians say that everything is negotiable except independence. Indeed a movement is now gathering pace in Kosovo to oppose the coming talks.

It is led by Albin Kurti, a 30-year old former political prisoner who is organising supporters to be ready to take to the streets. He says he is against talks because they aim at compromise and there can be no compromise on the question of independence.

Diplomatic sources believe the talks will last up to nine months, after which the main Western powers will then act to impose "conditional independence" on Kosovo. The Albanians will probably accept that, plus a high level of autonomy for Serbian areas. Serb leaders however, resigned as they may be to the reality of the situation, say they will never formally accept the loss of Kosovo, which they regard as the cradle of their civilisation.

In principle, Kosovo Albanians will be led into talks by Ibrahim Rugova, their president and the best-known symbol of Kosovo.

However Mr Rugova is ill with lung cancer. If he dies or is incapacitated, it is expected to weaken the Albanian negotiating position.

History of a troubled territory

* 1389: Battle of Kosovo heralds 500 years of Turkish Ottoman rule.

* 1918: Collapse of the Ottoman empire; Kosovo absorbed into Serbia.

* 1946: Kosovo absorbed into Yugoslav Federation.

* 1974: Yugoslav constitution recognises Kosovo's right to autonomy.

* 1981: Troops suppress separatist rioting.

* 1987: Future president Slobodan Milosevic rallies a crowd of Kosovo Serbs protesting against Albanian harassment.

* 1989: Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic abolishes autonomy rights.

* 1990: Ethnic Albanian leaders declare independence from Serbia.

* 1992: Academic Ibrahim Rugova, right, elected president of the self-proclaimed republic.

* 1998: Open conflict between Serb police and separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Hundreds of thousands of civilians are driven out in Serb military crackdown.

* 1999: Belgrade rejects internationally-brokered peace deal. Nato launches 11 week bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. President Milosevic agrees to withdraw troops from Kosovo. Nato forces deployed.

* 2002: Ibrahim Rugova elected president

* March 2004: 19 people are killed in worst clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians since 1999.

* October 2004: President Rugova's Democratic League wins elections.

* October 2005: UN Security Council gives green light for final status talks to begin.