Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said Tuesday in Washington the Belgrade government supports substantial autonomy but not independence for Kosovo. The future of the U.N.-run breakaway Serbian province dominated a meeting between Mr. Kostunica and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The Washington visit is part of a diplomatic offensive by the Serbian Prime Minister aimed at convincing world powers not to support independence for Kosovo.

The majority ethnic-Albanian province in southern Serbia has been under U.N. administration since 1999, when a NATO air campaign drove out Serb forces accused of committing atrocities while battling a local insurgency.

U.N.-mediated talks on Kosovo's political future began in February but have made little progress. They are to resume later this month with a focus on the critical issue of whether the region will become independent.

It is hoped a negotiated settlement can be reached by the end of this year.

In a talk with reporters after his meeting with Secretary Rice, Kostunica said he had made the same points to her as he had in previous stops in European capitals, that Serbia supports the highest possible degree of autonomy for Kosovo though his government cannot accept independence:

"For us, I must say for Serbia, independence is out of the question, something that I've repeated many times, independence is something that for Serbian authorities not only cannot be accepted, but should be rejected. And that is something I had once again to repeat in Washington," he said.

The Serbian Prime Minister said his formula of substantial autonomy for Kosovo is in accordance with international legal standards upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of existing states.

He also said it is a solution in the European tradition based on compromise and the protection of minority rights.

The United States has maintained that the future status of Kosovo is for the parties to determine through the negotiations, led by U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari of Finland.

At the same time, officials here have said a solution short of independence for Kosovo is hard to envision, given the bitter recent history of the region and the fact that more than 90 per cent of the population are ethnic-Albanians, who largely support severing ties to Belgrade.

The United States and Serbia have had recent problems in their relations over, among other things, the failure of authorities in the region to apprehend Balkans war crimes figures including former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

But Prime Minister Kostunica said his meeting with Secretary Rice was good, constructive and wide-ranging. He is due in New York Thursday for a U.N. Security Council meeting on Kosovo.