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Future Kosovo PM Tells Serbs 'Don't Fear Independence'

Kosovo's incoming Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has urged the province's minority Serbs not to be afraid of independence that the ethnic-Albanian majority wants to declare soon. Stefan Bos reports for VOA from Budapest, EU foreign ministers are discussing the future of Kosovo, after the passing of a deadline for international mediators to reach an agreement.

The European Union's foreign ministers have gathered in Brussels to try to formulate a common position on the future status of Serbia's Kosovo Province, where a restless government in the mostly ethnic Albanian area has made clear it wants to declare independence from Serbia before May.

The three international mediators, the European Union, Russia and the United States have failed to negotiate a deal between Kosovo's leadership and the Serbian government in Belgrade by a December 10 deadline. Russia has proposed new negotiations between its ally Serbia, which strongly opposes independence, and the provincial government, but the European Union and the United States believe it is time to settle the issue.

While most EU nations support independence, some are reluctant.

Slovakia and Romania, which have large ethnic-Hungarian minorities, fear that backing Kosovo's bid could set an international precedent and boost separatist sentiments in their own countries and across Europe.

Similar concerns have been expressed by Greece and Spain, which have seen years of attacks by separatist organizations. The divided island of Cyprus is insisting that Kosovo's sovereignty must be backed by a U.N. resolution.

But Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is optimistic that the European Union will achieve unity on Kosovo.

"Oh I think we can. Virtual unity. I think there is one country that is very firm and saying that we cannot move forward without the decision of the U.N. security council. I can well understand that position," he said.

Yet, European diplomats agree there is little time for talks left.

Kosovo's outgoing Prime Minister Agim Ceku has told EuroNews Television that the province's government wants to declare independence very soon.

"We think that [the] Troika process and Ahtisaari package are a reasonable base for a declaration of an independent Kosovo. This declaration must happen immediately and has to be permanent," he said.

About 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers are in Kosovo to prevent possible new clashes between the ethnic-Albanian majority and minority Serbs if independence is declared.

Kosovo's future prime minister, Hashim Thaci, told the British Broadcasting Corporation that the 100,000 Serbs still living in the region have nothing to fear.

"I will work very hard with them. I will go to visit them. To speak with them. Hand to hand, and home to home. And I will discuss with them that they do not need to be afraid from the independence of Kosovo. Because the independence of Kosovo will be a positive decision for everybody and it will be not just something positive for Albanians," he said.

Not everyone finds these words of the former guerilla commander re-assuring. Kosovo's Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic warns of more bloodshed.

"Serbs should response somehow. That means in a very small piece of land you will have two armies, keeping the finger on the trigger," he said.

That worries international peacekeepers who have been in Kosovo since 1999 when NATO forced Serb troops to end a brutal crackdown on independence seeking ethnic Albanians. They are expected to stay for some time in Kosovo, which is seen by Belgrade as the cradle of Serbian culture and religion, and claimed by Pristina as the ethnic-Albanians' historic heartland.