Ethnic Albanians, Serbs to meet in Vienna

Ethnic Albanian and Serbian officials met in Vienna on Monday to discuss proposed local government reform in Kosovo, the province both sides fought for and claim. The discussions are part of U.N.-mediated talks aimed at meshing seemingly irreconcilable demands by the two sides.

Ethnic Albanians, who comprise about 90 percent of the province's population of 2 million, insist on full independence. But Serbia, and Kosovo's Serb minority, insist Belgrade must retain some control over the province. Kosovo, formally still part of Serbia-Montenegro, has been under U.N. administrative control since mid-1999, when a NATO air campaign halted a crackdown by Serb forces on ethnic Albanian separatists.

The negotiations on Kosovo's future are being mediated by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, appointed by the United Nations to steer the talks toward an agreement by the end of the year ahead of a decision on the province's ultimate status. Monday's discussions were expected to focus on a local government reform plan presented to ethnic Albanian leaders last week by Ahtisaari's deputy, Albert Rohan.

The document which contains points of agreement and compromise solutions from two rounds of talks held by the former foes calls for maximum authority for municipalities and cooperation among them, but rejects the creation of a separate entity or an internal division of Kosovo, Rohan said last week. It also states that the composition of each city's police force must reflect its population, and that Kosovo's judicial institutions should reflect the ethnic composition of their area of jurisdiction.

Both sides have expressed reservations. Serbian officials insist Kosovo's Serbs be allowed to run their communities, link up with other Serb areas and have special ties to Belgrade. Ethnic Albanians reject the idea of Serb municipal clusters, which would include direct control over the police and justice systems, saying that would lead to an ethnic partition of the province.

"We came to Vienna to discuss decentralization, which will lead toward an independent, sovereign Kosovo," said Lutfi Haziri, Kosovo's deputy prime minister and the leader of the Kosovo delegation. "Our proposals contain all the guarantees for ethnic minorities, including the Serbs," he said. "Serbs should have the right to decision-making in the local level."

The Serbian delegation met with Ahtisaari ahead of the talks to express their dissatisfaction and to protest the fact that Rohan had presented it first to the ethnic Albanian side, without consulting Belgrade. "This document does not contain the breakthrough that we had expected," Aleksandar Simic, a team member and an adviser to Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, told the Belgrade-based Beta news agency.

Simic said the plan included details that had not been discussed at previous meetings. He did not elaborate. He also said the next round of talks on April 28 will focus on the creation of new Serb municipalities in Kosovo. "There can be no decentralization without the formation of municipalities with the Serb majority because only that would ensure the respect of their (Serb) rights," Simic said. A one-day meeting in Vienna last month between the former foes ended without agreement but with a pledge to reconvene in April, reports the AP.

N.U.