SALZBURG, Austria (Reuters) - Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on Friday that Kosovo's path to independence from Serbia was "almost inevitable".
"Everybody accepts that the pre-1999 situation is unsustainable as a basis for the future, and if that is the case, then a pathway towards independence becomes almost inevitable," Straw told a news conference at a European Union foreign ministers' meeting in Austria.
It was the clearest statement to date by a senior minister that Western powers will support a form of independence for the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian Serbian province in talks being brokered by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.
Western diplomats have been delivering that message privately to Serbs and Kosovo Albanians for months.
The province of two million people has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombing drove out Serbian forces accused of atrocities against ethnic Albanian civilians in a two-year war with separatist rebels.
Straw said the Serbian population would in the end have to accept that a big majority of Kosovars wanted independence.
Belgrade insists independence is unthinkable. Rich in Orthodox religious heritage, Kosovo holds almost mythic status for Serbs, central to their identity for 1,000 years.
But Serbs are outnumbered 20 to 1 by ethnic Albanians who want independence and have been practically self-governing since 1999.
Britain is a member of the Contact Group of major powers which has guided international policy on the Balkans since the mid-1990s.