UN avoids issue of sovereignty in its Kosovo plan

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A United Nations envoy has unveiled the long-awaited plan for the future status of Kosovo, carefully avoiding the words "independence" or "sovereignty" for the breakaway province.

Martti Ahtisaari told a news conference in the Serbian capital Belgrade that the package was a compromise. "Views of both sides are strong and clear. But it is not for me or my team to decide on the status; it will be solved when the matter goes to the Security Council," he added.

Another round of consultations with Belgrade and Pristina will begin on 13 February, Mr Ahtisaari said. He expects the UN Security Council will review the issue later this spring.

Serbia's outgoing Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, refused to meet Mr Ahtisaari, claiming his government was not responsible for the matter any more. Serbia still has no new government following elections on 21 January as coalition talks continue.

Analysts saw this as yet another effort by Mr Kostunica to avoid any involvement in what is largely viewed as the inevitable "loss of Kosovo". The province is emotionally regarded as the cradle of the medieval Serbian state. It has remained out of Belgrade's administrative reach since 1999, when the UN took over following 11 weeks of Nato bombing of Serbia. The bombing was in response to the repressive policies of the former leader Slobodan Milosevic against two million ethnic Albanians.

But Mr Ahtisaari is not unduly concerned by Serbia being without a government. "I am not easily frustrated with this," Mr Ahtisaari commented. "I cannot choose teams I'm negotiating with. Whoever comes I'll talk to him. I'm a born optimist."

Boris Tadic, the Serb President, did meet the envoy, who handed him the plan which provides Kosovo with the right to approach international bodies, have its own flag and national anthem and keep a security force. The practical road to independence will be overseen by the EU mission and a continuing Nato military presence.

For some 80,000 Serbs, surrounded by almost two million ethnic Albanians, the plan calls for special relations with Belgrade and the particular protection of Serbian Orthodox shrines.

However, Mr Tadic in a televised speech, said: "Serbia, and I as her President, will never accept Kosovo's independence. The forced independence of Kosovo would be contrary to all the basic principles of international law and would represent a dangerous political and legal precedent," he said.

The independence of Kosovo is not something that any Serb politician is yet willing to publicly accept. Many in Belgrade still look to Orthodox ally Russia to use its power of veto in the Security Council when the final status of Kosovo is discussed. Analysts, however, point out that Moscow has never previously acted on behalf of Serbia in any international body.

Mr Ahtisaari stressed yesterday that Kosovo has to have an economic and European future. "All Balkans need to focus on greater economic growth, good neighbourly relations, to improve lives of ordinary people ... The future can be bright," he said.