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Serb minority welcomed by government

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The government of Kosovo is reaching out to the country's minority Serbian population and will not allow the fledgling nation to break down along ethnic lines, President Fatmir Sejdiu said at the end of a Washington visit Tuesday.

"Many problems would come from a separation in Kosovo," said Mr. Sejdiu, speaking through an interpreter. Kosovo "should never be allowed to become another frozen conflict in Europe."

Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who constitute an estimated 90 percent of the population, declared independence in February, over the fierce objections of Serbia and its ally Russia.

The United States and leading Western European nations recognize the new state, but Kosovo's minority Serbs, many clustered in the country's north, reject the independence declaration and maintain strong ties to Belgrade.

President Bush, who met with Mr. Sejdiu and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci at the White House on Monday, praised their efforts to protect minority rights and said he opposed any moves by Kosovo's Serbs to re-establish formal ties with Belgrade.

"I'm against any partition of Kosovo," Mr. Bush said.

But defiant Kosovo Serbs reject Pristina's authority, holding their own elections in May for an assembly that met in a Serb-dominated district of the northern city of Mitrovica. There have been sporadic outbreaks of violence and the U.N.-authorized peacekeeping mission in Kosovo has a weak presence in the north.

Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said in Brussels on Tuesday that Kosovo's north "is now a lawless area."

"We can't allow the situation in Kosovo to drift," Mr. Fried told Agence France-Presse. "Things will start to deteriorate. We can't wait."

Mr. Sejdiu told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday that many of the worst fears - including major communal violence or mass flight by Kosovo Serbs - had not come to pass following Kosovo's independence.

He acknowledged there is still "some hesitation" on the part of ethnic Serbs to work with the Pristina government, a hesitation fueled by pressure from elements in Belgrade.

"There have been ideas circulating about the 'cantonization' of Kosovo, but they do not have any real support, even among the Serbs of Kosovo," he contended.

Some 43 countries recognize Kosovo's independence, but the opposition of Russia and other key powers has divided the U.N. Security Council and complicated the transition of the U.N. peacekeeping force to an oversight mission run by the European Union.