- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

ROME — Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders say they are prepared to take unilateral steps toward seceding from Serbia if the U.N. Security Council tries to water down a plan granting the province de facto independence.

“Whatever happens, there is no alternative to independence for Kosovo,” Yiber Hysa, a member of Kosovo’s parliament, said in an interview in Rome with The Washington Times.

If the sovereignty plan now on the table is weakened, he said, officials in Kosovo will call a popular referendum on independence, risking a confrontation with Serbia that could lead to renewed violence.

U.N. Kosovo mediator Martti Ahtissari meets tomorrow in Vienna with officials from Serbia, Kosovo, the United States and other members of the international Contact Group to present a revised plan for Kosovo, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said yesterday.

Serbia, which lost functional control of the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian province after a 1999 air war by NATO, angrily rejected the original Ahtissari formula. That plan stopped just short of full independence for Kosovo — allowing the province its own flag, constitution and security forces, as well as the right to join international institutions and negotiate treaties.

Mr. Ahtissari, a former Finnish prime minister, said he hopes to deliver a final proposal to the U.N. Security Council for ratification by the end of this month.

Speaking late Wednesday, Mr. Hysa said his delegation fears what it sees as signs that some Security Council members will try to dilute Mr. Ahtisaari’s formula.

“The Ahtisaari package with all these aspects of sovereignty is only acceptable if it can buy what Kosovars want in terms of status,” he said. “Otherwise, there is no point.”

Russia, a traditional ally of Belgrade that has a veto in the U.N. Security Council, has vowed to oppose any plan granting Kosovo independence if Serbia remains opposed to the deal.

But Mr. Hysa, a medieval historian and member of the moderate ORA party led by well-known journalist Veton Surroi, said that, if the accord is blocked, Kosovar leaders would organize a plebiscite to mandate a unilateral declaration of independence.

“If any major changes are made to the proposals, the situation could pass out of the hands of Kosovo institutions and to the people and even lead to a referendum being called,” he said. “It is very important to keep Ahtisaari’s work as it is in New York.”

U.S. and European Union officials have backed Mr. Ahtisaari’s work. U.S. officials say privately there is no realistic chance that Kosovo — which is at least 90 percent ethnic Albanian — would ever agree to remaining within Serbia.

Another demonstration last weekend by ethnic Albanian radicals in Pristina calling for immediate independence underlines the danger of popular frustration leading to violence in the province, Mr. Hysa said.

“Any obstruction or delay will only help those people to get more serious support,” he said.

Kosovar leaders see the Group of Eight summit in June as the latest date for the international community to reach a deal on Kosovo’s sovereignty, he said.

“If nothing unexpected happens in the spring, the question will pass to the G-8. If any delay happens beyond June, there probably would be nothing left but the unilateral option, unilateral moves, I hope not violent,” Mr. Hysa said.

Pristina expects the United States and Britain to give it diplomatic recognition if it does declare independence unilaterally, diplomatic sources say.

The ethnic Albanian delegation would not countenance any attempt to extend the Vienna talks beyond tomorrow’s meeting in Austria, Mr. Hysa said.

“Everyone agrees that this has to be the very last [session]. There is no point in maintaining further talks,” he said.

But nationalists in Belgrade consider Kosovo the spiritual and geographic cradle of Serbian culture. They fear that Kosovo’s Serbian minority will face persecution at the hands of the majority Albanians after NATO forces leave. There are 1,500 U.S. troops still deployed in Kosovo among a 16,000-member peacekeeping force.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica took a tough line again in talks yesterday with visiting NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

International peacekeepers will remain in Kosovo after its status is determined this year, Mr. De Hoop Scheffer said during a visit to Serbia yesterday.

“I can assure you that the NATO soldiers … will remain in Kosovo in the future to do what they have been doing, and that is protect every and any citizen,” Mr. De Hoop Scheffer told reporters in Belgrade.

Mr. Kostunica remained defiant. “Ahtisaari’s mandate was to find a compromise solution for the future status of Kosovo, not to open the question of the state status of Serbia and propose snatching away 15 percent of its territory,” he said.

David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.


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