Kosovo negotiators to discuss the province's future status on Thursday

As the politicians prepared for the fourth round of Kosovo status talks,  to be held Thursday in Vienna, Austria - religious leaders representing rival Serb, ethnic Albanian and smaller communities met separately in the western town of Pec, inside the NATO-guarded Pec Patriarchate.

The two-day meeting, organized by Norwegian Church Aid, brought together representatives of the Serb Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and Kosovo's Islamic, Jewish and Evangelical communities in a rare public gathering to help decrease tensions before the status talks are concluded, a statement from NCA said.

The U.N.-run process, led by the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, aims to reach agreement between Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and Serbia on the province's status by the end of 2006. Whereas the ethnic Albanian majority wants independence, the Serb minority insists the province remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the successor state to Yugoslavia.

Some form of independence for Kosovo is the most likely outcome, but international envoys are trying to steer the two sides toward agreements on other issues first, such as control of individual municipalities and creation of new ones for the province's minorities, especially Serbs.

The Republican senator from Arizona suggested "putting Serbia on a fast track to (EU) membership" as a way of compensating Serbia and anchoring it into the stable European community of nations.

This round of talks will tackle one of the toughest questions so far: who will control the territory's only ethnically divided town, Kosovska Mitrovica in the province's north.

The town is bisected by the river Ibar, which separates the town's Serb-dominated north from its ethnic Albanian south.

The town, 45 kilometers (30 miles) north of Kosovo's capital, Pristina, has been the scene of dozens of violent clashes since NATO bombing ended the Serb crackdown in Kosovo in June 1999. A symbol of the deep rift between the rival communities, Kosovska Mitrovica is also the last urban foothold for the 100,000 Serbs remaining in Kosovo, after tens of thousands fled ethnic retribution after the war.

The talks will consider ethnic Albanian and Serbian proposals for the town's future as part of the discussions on local government reform, as well as creation of other new municipalities for minority communities.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders have proposed the creation of two municipal bodies in Kosovska Mitrovica, governed by a single executive council that would be run by an international administrator for the next few years.

Serbs are likely to reject the offer and opt for the creation of cluster of Serb municipalities in the north, bordering Serbia, that would include their half of Kosovska Mitrovica.

Ethnic Albanians oppose any division of the town, fearing it could set a precedent leading to the partition of the rest of the province.

Kosovo has been a U.N. protectorate since the war ended between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian separatists, the AP reports.