- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday that Belgrade would not agree to Kosovo’s independence, offering instead “the highest possible autonomy” for the United Nations-run province.

During the first visit of a high-level Serbian official to Washington since Belgrade lost Montenegro, the last of the former Yugoslav republics to break away, Mr. Kostunica said independence for Kosovo is “out of the question.”

“I had a chance to explain the advantage of the position Serbia stands for, the highest possible autonomy,” he told reporters at the State Department after meeting with Miss Rice. “It’s a solution based on international legal standards regarding territorial integrity.”

Talks on Kosovo’s final status began in February but have not produced results. The next round is scheduled for later this month in Vienna, Austria.

The United States has avoided making definitive statements that would prejudge the outcome, but along with other Western countries, it supports the aspirations for independence among Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority. Russia has sided with Serbia.

“Independence is something the Serbian authorities cannot accept,” Mr. Kostunica said yesterday.

Kosovo, although still a Serbian province, has been ruled by the United Nations since the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia in response to President Slobodan Milosevic’s treatment of the Albanians there.

Mr. Milosevic was arrested in 2000 under the presidency of Mr. Kostunica and sent to The Hague war-crimes tribunal, where he died in March before his trial had ended. Other suspects including former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, remain at large.

Certain U.S. assistance to Serbia is contingent on its cooperation with The Hague tribunal, and this year, Miss Rice refused to certify Belgrade’s compliance, resulting in the withholding of $7 million in aid.

The secretary urged Mr. Kostunica to do everything possible to deliver the suspects to The Hague.

The May referendum in Montenegro that led to its independence prompted some changes in the Serbian government structure, although they have been smooth so far, said Jelena Cukic Matic, spokeswoman for the Serbian Embassy in Washington.

The Foreign and Defense ministries, which used to be part of the union government of Serbia and Montenegro, have been folded into the Serbian Cabinet headed by Mr. Kostunica.

The ministers and all other Serbian personnel remain the same, while the representatives of Montenegro in those agencies now work for the new Montenegrin government, Mrs. Matic said.

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