Saturday, October 29, 2005

NATO should retain Kosovo role

HELSINKI, Oct 29 (Reuters) - NATO should retain its security role in Kosovo regardless of the disputed province's future status, the man expected to lead talks on whether Kosovo remains part of Serbia or becomes independent said on Saturday.

Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, slated to become United Nations special envoy to lead talks on Kosovo's status, said he favoured no particular model for solving its problems.

In an interview with Finnish national broadcaster YLE, Ahtisaari, 68, declined to speculate on what the eventual solution would be, or how long it would take to achieve it.

"Time will tell whether it will be a compromise, and what kind of a compromise it could be," Ahtisaari said.

"It is a difficult situation, as there are still some armed groups that are not under control and it is important that NATO retains its security role, no matter what the solution."

Military alliance NATO, which has a 17,100-strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo, acknowledged earlier this month that an armed group in western Kosovo was stopping and searching cars at night, but dismissed them as bandits.

Local newspapers said a group calling itself "The Army for the Independence of Kosovo" had threatened U.N. officials and was demanding immediate recognition of independence for the province, whose population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.

Kosovo has been a U.N. protectorate since NATO ended the 1998-99 guerrilla war by bombing Yugoslavia to compel Serbia to withdraw its forces, which had been accused of ethnic cleansing.

Kosovo's Albanian majority increasingly wants independence, but Serbia -- which says the province, home to scores of Orthodox religious sites, is sacred land -- is opposed.

The U.N. Security Council earlier this month embraced its Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recommendation that international talks be launched to decide whether Kosovo gains independence or remains a Serbian province.

"(Finding a solution) has to start from first listening to the different parties, even if their views are fairly well known. Then we need to discuss with them how these problems could be addressed," Ahtisaari said.

"There is still a lot of basic work to be done before any kind of specific discussions can begin," he said, adding it was important to first create a working group for the task.

Ahtisaari, 68, made his mark in international diplomacy as point-man for the European Union when he persuaded then-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to accept NATO's terms for ending the Kosovo air campaign.

Most recently he grabbed the international limelight when he organised and hosted talks this year between Indonesia's government and the Free Aceh Movement, who signed a peace deal in August to end 30 years of armed struggle.

Ahtisaari's appointment as special envoy to Kosovo had been expected this week, but he said in the interview it now looked as though it would come towards the end of next week.

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