Monday, June 26, 2006

Blair warns Serbs to accept different vision for Kosovo

By Neil MacDonald in Belgrade and Mark Turner at the United,Nations

Published: June 26 2006 03:00 | Last updated: June 26 2006 03:00

Serbia must accept a "different vision" for the future make-up of south-east Europe or face increasing isolation and diminishing prospects of closer relations with the European Union, Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, will tell Vojislav Kostunica, his Serbian counterpart, tomorrow

At a London meeting at which Belgrade is likely to be pressed to meet its international obligations, such as catching indicted war criminals, Mr Kostunica would also be urged to accept the inevitability of independence for Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian province under United Nations administration, by the end of this year, British officials said.

The warning comes amid increased diplomatic activity as UN-mediated negotiations in Vienna over the status of Kosovo approach their decisive political phase. Six rounds of technical meetings have failed to produce any breakthrough on the basic status question.

Belgrade is under pressure from the UK, US and the UN administration in Kosovo to accept independence as the "least problematic solution".

However, Mr Kostunica faces formidable domestic pressure not to abandon Serbia's historical claims to the province, now dominated by ethnic Albanians. Belgrade continues to offer "the widest possible autonomy" without conceding sovereignty.

The 100,000 remaining Kosovo Serbs have sounded alarm bells about renewed ethnic violence aimed at driving them out. Serbs who have returned to northern Kosovo say they will pack up and go to central Serbia again unless the UN interim administration tracks down the murderer of Dragan Popovic, a 68-year-old Serbkilled last week on the doorstep of his home, to which he returned last year after abandoning it in 1999.

While an autopsy showed a gunshot wound to the back of his head, the UN administration refused to confirm an ethnic motive for the killing. UN officials warned Serbs against "any unilateral security measures not within the bounds of law", such as forming local militias.

Guaranteeing the rights and safety of the ethnic minorities who make up 10 per cent of Kosovo's population is the main test for the ethnic Albanian leadership negotiating independence.

Roughly 200,000 people - including at least half of the province's Serb population - from ethnic minority groups fled Kosovo in the wake of the 1999 war.

Only around 5 per cent of those Serbs have returned, despite a UN-brokered protocol on returns.

Soren Jessen-Petersen, chief UN administrator in Kosovo, told the UN Security Council last week that many Kosovo Serbs "feel confused, exposed and isolated, and they do not know what to think about the future".

But he also accused Belgrade of keeping them from engaging in local democratic politics.

Serbian state-run newspapers recently exposed internal UN plans for dealing with a "new Serb exodus" of 70,000 people from Kosovo in the event of independence.

UN officials in Belgrade confirmed the existence of emergency evacuation plans, but cautioned against citing these as a "scare tactic".

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