On a day when ethnic conflict again erupted into deadly violence in Kosovo, a leading Kosovar Albanian politician rejected ethnic division of the southern Serbian province and said independence is a pre-condition for stability in the region.
Hashim Thaci told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace that 2005 must be the year that the international community agrees to independence for Kosovo. Mr. Thaci, a founder of the Kosovo Liberation Army and head of the Democratic Party of Kosova, said the citizens of Kosovo-90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians demand and expect independence. Since Nato forces drove Serbian forces from the province five years ago, Kosovo has been occupied by Nato-led troops and administered by the United Nations.
The U.N. promises to discuss Kosovo's future late next year provided the Albanian led government meets certain international standards of conduct.
Mr. Thaci, more radical than Kosovo's current prime minister, favors dialogue with Belgrade but only on technical matters. Belgrade, he says, should have no veto over Kosovo's future. Mr. Thaci even rejects the notion that Kosovo was ever part of Serbia. "With respect to your question about whether Kosovo's partition from Serbia could be detrimental," he says. "I would say that Belgrade has nothing to lose because Kosova has never been part of Serbia, because Kosovo was run by force."
It was in Kosovo that Serbs lost an epic battle to the Turks in 1389. The province is filled with historic Serbian orthodox monasteries, several of which have been destroyed by ethnic Albanians. Kosovo's remaining Serbs - less than 100,000 - live in ethnic ghettoes protected by Nato forces and U.N. police.
Partition has become a volatile issue because Serbia's new prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, is seeking increased autonomy for Kosovar Serbs.
A congressional committee meanwhile discussed Serbia's political situation in light of the December elections in which radicals and nationalists made big gains. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Stephens said Washington is determined to work with the United Nations to achieve a secure and democratic future for all of Kosovo's citizens.
Ms. Stephens said despite progress under the previous government, the Serbian authorities are currently not in compliance with U.S. requirements that they hand over 16 people who have been indicted for war crimes by the Hague tribunal. Serbia has extradited 23 people to the Hague, include former strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
"We are particularly focused on our effort to see [former Bosnian Serb general] Ratko Mladic brought to justice," says Ms. Stephens. "We believe this would be a transforming event for Serbia-Montenegro's democratic development."
Prime Minister Kostunica has said cooperation with the Hague tribunal is not a priority and that he is willing to risk a possible cutoff of U.S. assistance. The United States is the biggest foreign investor in post-Milosevic Serbia. Ms. Stephens said Washington wants Serbian reform to succeed.