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Rice Urges Serbia to Accept Kosovo's Independence

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Wednesday said she hopes Serbia will accept a resolution of Kosovo's status and move forward to fuller integration with Europe. Kosovo, a Serbian province administered by the United Nations since 1999, is expected to declare independence within days. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The United States is widely expected to join European Union allies in recognizing Kosovo's independence once it is officially declared. And Rice is counseling Serbia, which has adamantly opposed the loss of the majority ethnic-Albanian region, to accept the reality of the situation and move on.

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, in a session nominally devoted to the U.S. foreign affairs budget, Rice said fuller integration with Europe lies ahead for Serbia once the Kosovo issue is settled, a process she acknowledged will not be easy for Belgrade:

"I do know that this is going to be an extraordinarily difficult period of time for the Serbian people. And what the United States will be doing is offering a hand of friendship, saying that the status of Kosovo, and its resolution, will allow Serbia to look forward and to move on then with what it needs to do," she said.

The Bush administration has endorsed the plan of U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, a former President of Finland, for supervised independence for Kosovo, and there is bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for that policy.

However at Wednesday's hearing, Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio told Rice he is concerned that an independent Kosovo may lack the infrastructure for viable independence. "I'm very, very worried, Madam Secretary, about what is going to happen there, because I'm getting mixed signals. I think probably they're going to declare their independence. The European Union is going to go along with it. But I'm just really fearful that the infrastructure that was set out in the plan that was negotiated may not be there to get the job done. And if that goes in the wrong direction, I think as you know it is going to cause real problem in our goal of bringing that part of the world into Europe," he said.

Rice told Voinovich the Bush administration had held two top-level meetings on Kosovo in as many days, and has had intensive talks with European allies on making a transition to supervised independence as smooth as possible.

She said the E.U. is sending a police and justice mission there to back up NATO troops providing security, and that protecting the rights and religious shrines of Kosovo's Serb minority is a high priority for all those concerned.

Rice also told Voinovich she had personally intervened with NATO to offer Serbia membership in the alliance's Partnership for Peace even though key Bosnian-Serb war crimes figures from the Balkans conflict remain at large.