As Kosovo enters status negotiations that could lead to independence from Serbia, the United Nations administrator in the territory, Soren Jessen-Petersen, says an exodus of the Serb minority from Kosovo would be a huge setback for the region.

In an interview with VOA, Jessen-Petersen called on ethnic Albanian politicians to reach out to the Serb minority. The Danish diplomat recalled his time in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina 10 years ago when shortly after the Dayton peace agreement, thousands of Serbs left Sarajevo. A similar exodus, he remembered, occurred in Pristina in June 1999 shortly after NATO forces drove Serbian troops out of Kosovo. "We have seen it now twice after so-called peace agreements. They have been followed by exodus and displacement. It must not happen again," he said.

Jessen-Petersen said an exodus is fully avoidable but that strong Albanian efforts are needed to show ethnic minorities that they are welcome and have a secure future in Kosovo. "It (an exodus) must be avoided. It would be a humanitarian tragedy. It would be an international failure. And I think politically it would be a major setback for Serbia, for Kosovo and for the region," he said.

Less than 10 percent of Kosovo's population is non-Albanian. Minorities live in enclaves protected by international peacekeepers. No more than a handful of Serbs live in Pristina, the provincial capital.

The U.N. administrator faulted ethnic Albanian politicians for not doing enough to reassure the Serb minority. He said that as western embassies have signaled that a likely outcome of the status negotiations will be Kosovo independence, Serb anxieties have risen. "That (the signals) obviously promotes a lot of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. And many of them (Serbs) are not so sure that at the end of the day they can count on Belgrade (to safeguard their future). And they're very worried right now," he said.

After nearly seven years of U.N. administration, Kosovo's status negotiations began last month. Jessen-Petersen said a key issue being discussed is decentralization, self government for villages and towns, measures intended to address the concerns of non-Albanians.