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Kosovo Albanians Applaud Call for Speedy Decision on Province's Status

Political leaders in Kosovo are applauding a statement by members of the International Contact Group on Kosovo calling on ethnic Albanians and the Serbian government to move ahead with deciding the future status of the Serbian province. VOA's Barry Wood reports from the Kosovo capital, Pristina.

The statement came at a meeting late Wednesday of the Contact Group on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. It urged the Serbian government and ethnic-Albanians in Kosovo to work constructively to settle the final status of Kosovo by the end of the year.

A former Kosovo prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, who is now the leader of the opposition, says the decision by the Contact Group is good news for all of Kosovo's two million inhabitants. "I'm pleased because (the statement) is decisive about timing. No one can expect there is a best time to decide (status). But there had been speculation about whether it was best (to decide) before or after an election in Serbia. (But to wait) would allow problems just to accumulate," he said.

Serbia, which opposes Kosovo's independence, had hoped for a delay in the status talks. Instead the Contact Group, made up of the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Russia, expressed strong support for the U.N. Special Envoy for Kosovo, Martii Ahtisaari, and his efforts to get an agreement that preserves the multiethnic character of the province.

Ethnic-Albanian politicians are confident Ahtisaari will propose that Kosovo be put on a path toward independence. His proposal, likely to be presented within the next month, is to include security guarantees for the Serbian minority, who make up around 10 percent of the province, as well as enhanced local control in Serb-populated areas.

Ahtisaari has presided over seven months of status negotiations between Kosovo Albanians and the government in Belgrade.

Belgrade is vehemently opposed to granting independence to a territory it regards as an integral part of Serbia, but it has offered Kosovo extensive autonomy. This has been rejected by Pristina.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav KoŇ°tunica responded to the Contact Group statement saying the outcome could have been worse as the Contact Group did not call for a U.N. Security Council decision by year's end.

Meanwhile, ethnic tensions in the province are on the rise, and the NATO-led peacekeepers have beefed up patrols to head off violence.