- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

A United Nations mediator today will outline a plan to put Kosovo on the path to de facto independence from Serbia, eight years after a NATO bombing campaign ousted the forces of former Yugoslavian strongman Slobodan Milosevic from the province.

The plan, to be presented in Belgrade and Pristina, Kosovo’s provincial capital, by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, avoids using the word “independence” and leaves the province under temporary oversight of the European Union.

But the new Kosovo entity would have the right to set up a government, join the World Bank and international institutions, police its borders, and adopt a flag and national anthem, said Western diplomats who have seen the draft.

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the province’s 2 million people, have insisted they will never agree to remain part of Serbia after the “ethnic cleansing” campaign conducted by Mr. Milosevic.

“The process of Kosovo’s independence is unstoppable,” a senior European diplomat told reporters in Pristina yesterday.

But the blueprint, which has strong European and U.S. backing, likely will infuriate Serbian nationalists and many of the nearly 100,000 ethnic Serbs still living in Kosovo. Serbs consider the province their ancestral homeland, with a history of Serbian settlement dating to before the Ottoman Empire.

Serbia has received diplomatic backing from traditional ally Russia, but Western diplomats hope Moscow can be persuaded not to veto the Kosovo compromise.

A 17,000-strong NATO peacekeeping force — including 1,500 Americans — has been on heightened alert in the countdown to the release of the plan, which the Finnish diplomat drew up on his own after a fruitless year of talks with Serbian and Kosovo leaders.

Although Kosovo will be granted a small, lightly armed internal security force, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has vowed that the international peacekeeping force “will play its part through and beyond the status process.”

The Ahtisaari plan reportedly contains significant safeguards and political autonomy for Kosovo’s Serbian minority, who live mainly in the north and in enclaves throughout the rest of the province.

But the safeguards are unlikely to cool passions in Belgrade, where delicate political talks are under way after a nationalist party opposed to Kosovo’s sovereignty emerged with the single biggest bloc in parliament in elections held Jan. 21.

Mr. Ahtisaari held off issuing his report until after the Serbian vote, but he was under strong pressure from Kosovo and Western powers not to delay a resolution for fear of violence inside Kosovo.

Outgoing Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said this week that his party would demand that any new ruling coalition in Belgrade cut diplomatic ties with any state that recognized Kosovo.

The U.S. Embassy in Belgrade said yesterday that it was “disappointed” with Mr. Kostunica’s hard-line approach, but nationalist parties have taken an even tougher stance.

Kosovo Serbian leader Oliver Ivanovic, considered a moderate, predicted that his fellow Kosovo Serbs were ready to secede — violently, if need be — if the U.N. plan is approved.

“You cannot strip a part of a territory from a state without war,” he told the Austrian news agency APA.

Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Imer Selmani, whose country has a sizable ethnic Albanian minority, said in an interview Wednesday that it was “self-evident” that Kosovo’s majority would never accept Serbian control.

But he said the Kosovo tensions underscored the importance of embedding all the states of the region in larger alliances such as NATO and the European Union.

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