The United States Monday expressed outrage over the weekend shooting deaths of two Serbs in Kosovo. The State Department said preventing such attacks will be a critical test of Kosovo's ability to govern itself.
The United States has joined the European Union in condemning the Saturday night attack on the Serbs, which is being described as the most serious act of apparently ethnic-based violence in Kosovo in nearly a year.
Two Serb men traveling in a car in southern Kosovo were killed and two others wounded in the gun attack, which came as U.N. officials are preparing to determine whether conditions in Kosovo have improved enough to begin negotiations on its political future.
Kosovo, still technically a province of Serbia, has been run by the United Nations since 1999 when Serbian troops accused of atrocities against the region's ethnic-Albanian majority were forced to withdraw after a NATO airstrikes.
News reports say the shooting has stoked ethnic tensions in the region, with Serb community leaders blaming ethnic-Albanian extremists, and the government in Belgrade saying it shows Kosovo is not ready for final-status talks.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack expressed U.S. outrage over the killings while urging Kosovo residents to remain calm and to help police bring the perpetrators to justice.
He said while the motive for the killing is still undetermined, it is incumbent on Kosovo authorities to protect the region's minority population. "Regardless of the crime's motivation, Kosovo's leaders must continue to explore ways to improve freedom of movement in Kosovo, and make Kosovo's most vulnerable communities feel secure. The capability of Kosovo's institutions to solve this kind of murder and prevent its recurrence will be a critical test of Kosovo's ability to govern itself," he said.
The Bush administration, working with key European allies, moved in May to restore momentum to stalled Kosovo settlement efforts.
A United Nations special envoy, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, was named to assess whether Kosovo is ready for final status talks and he is expected to announce his decision within a matter of weeks.
Depending on his verdict, international negotiations could begin by year's end on whether Kosovo should remain part of Serbia, become independent, or achieve some sort of hybrid status.
The Bush administration says it has not prejudged the issue of Kosovo's ultimate status, but has said that any final arrangement must be based on multi-ethnicity with full respect for human rights, including the right of displaced Serbs and others to reclaim their homes and live in security.
NATO has about 20,000 troops in Kosovo, which despite the security presence has seen outbreaks of violence including widespread clashes between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in March of 2004.