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US: Too Early for Final Talks on Kosovo Status - 2003-01-17

The United States said Friday it is premature to start discussing the final status of Kosovo, the Yugoslav province that has been a de facto international protectorate since 1999. The comments follow a call for talks on the status of Kosovo Thursday by Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

The State Department says significant progress has been made in Kosovo toward creating the autonomous province envisaged in the key U.N. resolution that effectively ended the Kosovo conflict in 1999. But at the same time, it says it is too soon to start final-status talks on the province's future, as proposed Thursday by Mr. Djindjic.

Security Council Resolution 1244 of June 1999 set up the U.N. Interim Administration is Kosovo to run the mainly ethnic-Albanian province. While reaffirming Yugoslav sovereignty over the area, it set no timetable for its reintegration with the rest of the country.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reaffirmed U.S. support for the terms of the resolution, which calls for "substantial autonomy and self-government" for Kosovo, and said it is "not time at this point" to begin talks on final-status questions.

"U.N. Special Representative Michael Steiner has established standards and benchmarks to be achieved prior to any 1244 process on final status. We support that approach," he said. "Our position has not changed. We think now is not the time to begin that process. So, we would note the notable strides that Kosovo have made - the people of Kosovo have made - toward creating multi-ethnic democracy. But much remains to be done in returning refugees and displaced persons, ensuring safety and freedom of movement for minorities, combating organized crime and nurturing inclusive and effective self-governance."

NATO bombed targets in Kosovo and adjoining Serbia in 1999 to end a crackdown by Serb security forces on Kosovo's Albanian majority, many of whom were backing the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, the KLA.

Resolution 1244 provided for the withdrawal of Serb forces and the disarming of the KLA and other ethnic Albanian factions, while turning security duties over to U.N. peacekeepers and international police.