U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has hinted he will soon recommend the start of talks on the future status of Kosovo.

A day after receiving a report on Kosovo's progress toward meeting U.N.-set standards on minority rights and democracy, Secretary-General Annan said he is leaning toward a conclusion that the province is ready for negotiations on its status.

"I am studying the report, and I will make a recommendation to the Security Council very shortly.  And I am likely to indicate that we proceed with status talks," he said.

When asked when he might make his recommendation, Mr. Annan replied, "maybe sooner than you think."

The secretary-general appointed senior Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide last June to study progress on the U.N. standards.  Diplomats who have seen the report say it sharply criticizes both majority ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs in the province for the slow pace of progress, but nevertheless concludes that future status negotiations should begin.

The Security Council is expected to take up the Kosovo question the last week of October.  If the 15-member body agrees, talks on Kosovo's future status could begin in November.

Kosovo is legally part of Serbia, but has been under U.N. administration since 1999, when Serbian forces withdrew in the face of NATO air strikes aimed at ending Belgrade's crackdown on ethnic Albanians.

The government in Belgrade and Kosovo's minority Serbs insist that the province remain part of Serbia-Montenegro.  Belgrade has tried to delay status talks, pointing to a lack of progress in protecting minority rights, but the 90 percent ethnic-Albanian majority is demanding full independence.

The United States and the European Union have both expressed support for settling the issue of Kosovo's status because of the possibility of renewed ethnic violence.  Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said earlier this year that failure to address the status question risks undoing much of what has been achieved in the Balkans over the past 10 years.