Ethnic Albanian, Serbian leaders hold talks to decide Kosovo’s future

Top Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders met in unprecedented talks aimed at resolving the dispute over the breakaway province of Kosovo. But with the two sides intractable, chances of a breakthrough are slim.

At issue is whether Kosovo will become independent, as demanded by its ethnic Albanian majority, or remain within Serbia's borders as the Serb leadership insists.

The Serbian delegation is led by President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, while the ethnic Albanian delegation includes President Fatmir Sejdiu and the province's prime minister, Agim Ceku, as well as two opposition leaders.

At the start of the meeting, held in a Vienna palace, the leaders sat across the table from each other. Between them at the head of the table sat the chairman of the meeting, U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari. Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and Ursula Plassnik, Austria's foreign minister, were also present.

With the two groups so far apart, ethnic Albanians demanding full independence and Serbia offering only broad autonomy, U.N. brokers for the talks set the expectations low, warning at the outset that no breakthrough was expected on Monday's encounter.

Serbia claims Kosovo is the heart of its kingdom, while Kosovo's ethnic Albanians argue Serbia has lost the right to govern it after its former leadership sparked a war in which an estimated 10,000 of their ethnic kin died.

During their daylong meeting in the Austrian capital, the two 15-member delegations will present their positions on the future of the territory. The U.N. mediators are then expected to push the two sides into a discussion.

Before the meeting, Sejdiu said his delegation's mandate was to create an independent Kosovo and that they did not intend to negotiate on that.

Kostunica warned that Kosovo's independence was a dangerous prospect for an ethnically tense region and has instead offered autonomy to ethnic Albanians.

Kosovo's status was last formally discussed in 1999, in a conference in France, at the height of the war that pitted Serbian troops loyal to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic against ethnic Albanian separatists.