Bulgaria denies backing Kosovo independence

SOFIA, Feb 2, 2000 -- (Reuters) Bulgaria dismissed reports on Tuesday that it may consider recognizing an independent Kosovo and said it backed autonomy for the province within Yugoslavia.

Speculation of a shift in Bulgaria's position followed a visit over the weekend to Sofia by Kosovo Albanian leader Hashim Thaci on the invitation of the ruling Union of Democratic Forces (UDF).

Thaci used the opportunity to reiterate his desire for an independent Kosovo. The province has been under international control since NATO bombing drove out Serb forces last year. "There has been no change in our position," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mikhailova said on Tuesday. "There has been no evolution and there could be no evolution."

Prime Minister Ivan Kostov said on Monday Kosovo should enjoy wide autonomy but stay within Yugoslavia, a sentiment echoed by President Petar Stoyanov.

On Saturday, UDF leader Kostov held long talks with Thaci and Arben Xhaferi, head of the Democratic Party of Albanians in neighboring Macedonia.

After the meeting, the chairman of Bulgaria's parliamentary foreign policy commission, Assen Agov, told reporters: "Things are undergoing an evolution." His remarks were interpreted as a sign that Bulgaria's position on Kosovo could change. Reaction to Thaci's visit to Sofia and Agov's remarks was fierce in a region where many people are concerned at a possible re-emergence of a 'Greater Albania' movement, promoting the idea of uniting Albania, Kosovo and parts of Macedonia.

In Belgrade, the pro-government Politika daily slammed Thaci as "the leader of Albanian separatists and terrorists."

In Macedonia, some newspapers expressed concern over a possible destabilization of the country where one third of the population are ethnic Albanians.