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Serbian President Again Offers Kosovo Wide Autonomy, But Rejects Independence

Members of the international contact group on Kosovo Thursday urged parties to the dispute to engage in serious and constructive talks as negotiations on the region's final status enter their final stage with a December 10 deadline looming. Serbia warned at the U.N. that an independence move by Kosovo would destabilize the world. VOA's David Gollust reports from our U.N. bureau.

The contact group - the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy - held a ministerial level meeting here to launch face-to-face talks between Serbian officials and ethnic-Albanian leaders considered a last-chance to reach a negotiated settlement before the December 10 deadline.

Serbia has adamantly opposed a U.N. plan that would give the majority-Albanian Serbian province supervised independence. Kosovar Albanians have threatened to declare independence unilaterally after that despite warnings from Belgrade that it might use force to halt the process.

The United States and West European contact group members support the independence plan of U.N. envoy Martti Ahtissaari while Russia, a longtime ally of Serbia, has vowed to block any formula unacceptable to Belgrade.

But in comments after the contact group meeting, British Foreign Secretary David Millband said the meeting was very constructive and collegial and that all the group's members hope the direct talks, mediated by the so-called troika of the United States, Russia and the European union, succeed.

"'What we've started is a process, the mandate of which concludes on December 10th, which is the mandate for the troika representatives. And it's a process to find common ground between each side. There are representatives on both sides, every single member of the contact group emphasized the importance of both sides engaging in a constructive and serious spirit, and that's the basis on which the further discussions will take place," he said.

Earlier, in a U.N. General Assembly address, Serbian President Boris Tadic reiterated his government's stance that independence for Kosovo is unacceptable, but that Belgrade is prepared to offer the region an unprecedented degree of autonomy.

He warned that the unilateral independence would encourage separatist movements around the world and trigger what he termed unforeseeable consequences. He is heard through an interpreter. "Following a one-sided recognition of Kosovo independence, the international legal order would never be the same, while many separatist movements the world over would use the newly-established precedent. Many regions in the world would be de-stabilized in that way," he said.

Mr. Tadic said while the latest negotiations are taking place under auspices of the Contact Group, a legitimate decision on Kosovo's future can only be made by the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow could use its veto to block an outcome opposed by Belgrade.

In his General Assembly speech, Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha said independence for Kosovo is a fundamental condition for durable peace in the region.

He said Belgrade's opposition stems from a lack of realism and what he termed the ghost of a greater Serbia and he said an independent Kosovo does not have implications for other disputes. "Claims that Kosovo independence is setting an international precedent or lays conditions for the creation of a greater Albania, as well as the fear from having two Albanian states in the Balkans are really unfounded. Those who are interested in the truth and reality can easily realize that Kosovo is a unique case both from a historical and current perspective," he said.

Mr. Berisha said an independent Kosovo would be oriented toward Brussels and Europe and not on some alliance with Albania, which he vowed would respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors.

Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations since 1999 when a NATO air campaign halted a brutal crackdown by Yugoslav forces against ethnic-Albanian separatists. The province is policed by some 16,000 NATO troops, who diplomats say would remain indefinitely after a settlement of its status.