Kosovo Albanians agree to postpone independence aim

VIENNA, May 11, 2000 -- (Reuters) Ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo are willing to begin talks on an interim constitution for the province, putting off their ultimate aim of independence from Serbia, OSCE envoy Albert Rohan said on Wednesday.

The status of the majority ethnic Albanian province has been in limbo since June 1999 when NATO and the United Nations began to administer Kosovo after Serbian control was severed by NATO's 11-week-long bombing campaign of Yugoslavia. The international community offered Kosovo "substantial autonomy", but did not define what that meant and ruled out independence, which many ethnic Albanians see as sacrosanct, for fear that it would destabilize the region.

Rohan, a senior Austrian diplomat and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Balkans envoy, said former rebel leader Hashim Thaqi wanted work on an interim settlement to begin soon, involving international and Kosovo experts.

"This position is an important concession because the Kosovo Albanian leadership are agreeing to extend the interim period and to postpone their desire for a swift final settlement," he said after talks in Vienna with Thaqi, a former leader of the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army.

Diplomats believe the uncertainty over the future of Kosovo is contributing to ethnic tension and undermining the efforts of UNMIK, the post-war United Nations civilian authority, to rebuild the shattered province and its institutions.

Rohan, who visited Kosovo 10 days ago, said ethnic Albanian leaders appeared to be getting the message that independence would not be accepted by the international community and that there was more pressing work to be done.

"We're saying, let's postpone that debate for a couple of years but we need some kind of interim constitutional framework," he told Reuters.

Ibrahim Rugova, leader of Kosovo's pre-eminent political party who led a campaign of peaceful resistance to Belgrade's rule throughout the 1990s, still had reservations.

"Rugova is a bit reluctant, but it seems it will be possible to get the general cooperation of all of them on interim status," Rohan said.


The participation of representatives of the Serb minority in talks on an interim constitution had not yet been secured, but Rohan believed they would eventually agree.

"I am confident that we can and should involve Serb constitutional experts using the same argument as we did with the (local) elections - if you stay outside, you have no say in the matter."

The OSCE last month began compiling a register ahead of Kosovo's first free elections due to take place in October.

Rohan said the interim status talks must start in the next few weeks, preferably in Kosovo and include local and international experts, if they are to reach a conclusion before the vote.

"My feeling is that this should be done locally in Kosovo - we don't want a new Rambouillet," he said in reference to the abortive peace talks held near Paris in March 1999.

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