EU foreign policy chief to arrive Belgrade for talks on Kosovo

The European Union's foreign policy chief was expected Monday in Belgrade for talks on both Kosovo's future status and Montenegro's planned independence referendum. During a two-day visit to Serbia-Montenegro, Javier Solana was to meet Monday with top Belgrade officials, including federation President Svetozar Marovic, and then travel Tuesday to Kosovo for discussions with the province's ethnic Albanian leaders.

U.N.-mediated negotiations on Kosovo's future status are expected to begin in January. Although still officially a province of Serbia, Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations since a 1999 NATO bombing campaign halted the Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Belgrade and Kosovo's Serb minority want the province to remain within Serbia's borders, while the province's majority ethnic Albanians seek full independence.

EU officials have said a status settlement should respect rights of all Kosovo communities, saying the province cannot return to being directly ruled from Serbia nor be partitioned between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

The EU is expected to play a key role in reaching a solution, and has appointed Austrian Balkan expert Stefan Lehne to assist U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, in leading the status talks. The bloc is also concerned about Montenegro, where the population is divided over the issue of independence from Serbia. Montenegro has maintained a loose union with Serbia, after four other former Yugoslav states split from the former federation in early 1990s. But ties between the two have deteriorated, and Montenegro's leaders scheduled an independence referendum for the first half of 2006.

The EU has tried to talk Montenegro out of opting for secession, fearing it could trigger new Balkan tensions, and has warned that internationally accepted democratic standards must apply in the vote, reports the AP. I.L.

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