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UN Envoy Says Talks on Kosovo's Future Could Begin This Year

The United Nations envoy to Kosovo says a timetable is in place that could lead to negotiations on the region's future later this year. Separate talks between Pristina and Belgrade are to resume shortly.

More than five years after the fighting stopped in Kosovo, U.N. special envoy Soren Jessen-Petersen says tensions are simmering between majority ethnic Albanians and the ethnic Serb minority.

But six months after taking over as U.N. administrator of the region, Mr. Jessen-Petersen gave the Security Council a cautiously upbeat assessment of its future.

He admitted that the province has not reached any of eight benchmarks set by the Security Council on issues such as minority rights, security and good governance. The standards are considered minimum requirements before talks on Kosovo's final status can begin.

But he expressed hope that a new government that took power in December could push the process forward. "There is now broad agreement on a clear way forward and a clear timetable that could lead us to the negotiations on final status in the second half of the year," he said.

The envoy also noted that direct dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade is about to resume after a year-long boycott by Belgrade.

The president of a Serbian government commission for Kosovo painted a much darker picture. Nebojsa Covic said the Serb minority lives in fear of attack. Speaking through an interpreter, he said Mr. Jessen-Petersen's upbeat assessment is "unrealistic".

"Things have actually become worse. For almost six years now, the new reality of Kosovo Metohia has been that one ethnic community, the Serbian one, has been disappearing under the pressure and violent acts by the majority community," he said.

U.N. envoy Petersen sharply rejected the Serbian representative's argument. He told Security Council diplomats stories of continuing violence are exaggerated. "It is not, with all due respect, as Dr. Covic said, because people are not moving around… I have made it clear that we can't talk of sufficient progress as long as some minority are still forced to live behind barbed wire and cannot move, but the large majority of the Kosovo Serbs are moving around freely," he said. "But the fact is there has not been any single serious ethnic-related incident since last June."

Speaking to reporters after the Council meeting, the Serbian representative, Mr. Covic suggested the U.N. envoy was out of touch with the facts. He warned through an interpreter that the Security Council should be prepared for what it would do if his assessment turns out to be wrong.

"Naturally Mr. Petersen can have his own opinion, but everything I said reflects the situation on the ground. It is understandable, Mr. Petersen has a difficult job, and you cannot expect someone who has done a certain job to say 'we have failed in doing this' the results they talk about are not realistic," he said.

The next steps toward determining Kosovo's status are complex. The U.N. envoy is to give the Security Council an assessment update in May. After that, ambassadors will have to decide whether to go ahead with a final evaluation of progress toward the eight benchmarks.

A top U.S. diplomat this week noted progress in Kosovo's attempt to meet the benchmarks on good governance, but said more must be done to protect the rights of minority Serbs.