Talks on Kosovo's future are historic opportunity, say Serbs

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The first direct talks between rival Serbs and ethnic Albanians over the future of Kosovo opened with calls for a historic compromise over province.

"We see this round of talks as an opportunity to achieve a historic compromise and resolve the long-lasting conflict between Serbs and Albanians," Serbia's President Boris Tadic said before the meeting.

The talks held under the auspices of US, Russian and EU negotiators are the latest attempt by the international community to resolve the future status of Kosovo. Although formally part of Serbia, the province of two2 million people – mostly ethnic Albanians – has been a UN protectorate since 1999 when Nato intervened to stop a crackdown by Serb forces against separatists.

Over the past year, the issue – the last unresolved territorial problem from the break-up of former Yugoslavia – has become one of the main irritants in the increasingly tense relationship between a resurgent Russia and the US.

Washington strongly supports eventual independence for the province, but Moscow backs Belgrade in its insistence that Kosovo must remain part of Serbia albeit with a wide-ranging autonomy. A previous round of negotiations collapsed earlier this year, when Serbia rejected a UN plan to grant supervised independence to the impoverished, landlocked region.

Kosovo's leaders insist that independence is the only viable way forward for the region and reject Belgrade's offer of self-government. Ethnic Albanian leaders have warned they may unilaterally declare independence by the end of the year unless Kosovo is allowed to break free.

Diplomats from the US, the EU and Russia are due to report on the current round of talks to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon by 10 December.