U.S. and EU are ready to recognize Kosovo independence.

The United States and the European Union will recognize Kosovo if the Balkan province declares independence from Serbia in early December when last-ditch negotiations end, senior U.S. and European officials said Monday.

The officials spoke as the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians prepared to sit down this week at the United Nations for talks that diplomats have billed as part of a final effort to get agreement on the issue. It has turned into a confrontation between the West and Russia, which has threatened to veto any Security Council resolution approving independence for Kosovo.

"The game plan is set," said a senior European diplomat who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The talks end on Dec. 10. If there is no sense then that Serbia and Kosovo can agree on the province's future, then Kosovo will make a unilateral declaration of independence. The U.S. will recognize that independence, and the Europeans, as far as they can remain united, will follow, too," he said.

The EU will support the U.S. stance despite a clear preference for a UN-backed solution. But it will find it difficult to speak with one voice for all the 27 member states, diplomats said.

Illustrating the thorniness of the issue, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said in an interview last week that Europe must stay united on Kosovo, but that the Russian position must be taken into account.

"Kosovo's independence is unavoidable in the long term," Sarkozy said, adding that President Vladimir Putin "must understand that no one wants to humiliate him."

Romania and Slovakia, fearful that ethnic Hungarians in their countries could seek greater autonomy, are expected to come under heavy pressure from Washington to accept the EU position.

Greece and Cyprus, however, could break ranks.

Greece, a close ally of Serbia, is concerned that its neighbor Macedonia could become unstable because the ethnic Albanians in the former Yugoslav republic might call for independence. Cyprus, divided between the Turkish north and the Greek Cypriot south, fears the Kosovo example might be used by the Turkish Cypriots.

With so much at stake for EU unity, diplomats, while not holding out much hope, said all efforts would be made this week at the United Nations in New York where the Kosovar and Serb leaders meet for the first time since a new round of talks started last month. The issue is one of the last unresolved disputes left from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

"I think it is best that we work through the United Nations Security Council," Ivan Vejvoda, director of the Belgrade office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said. "It would ensure full solidarity and democratic legitimacy in the region."

Until now, the EU has been seeking an end to the impasse through the UN, too, but it is losing patience with the struggle to find a consensus in the Security Council over granting Kosovo independence, according to EU diplomats.

Putin, who wants the issue kept inside the UN, has opposed independence. As a member of the UN Security Council, Russia can veto or block any resolution calling for Kosovo to be independent.

Russian diplomats have repeatedly claimed that independence without Serbia's approval could set off a chain reaction in other regions that are seeking independence, particularly Abkhazia and North Ossetia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova - which are supported by Russia.

European and U.S diplomats said the status of Kosovo could not be left in limbo indefinitely.

Since 1999, when NATO bombed Serbian targets...the province of two million people has been governed by the UN as an international protectorate. During this time, it has received over 3 billion, or $4.2 billion, of aid while NATO still has 17,000 soldiers deployed there.

The EU agreed to monitor closely the implementation of the Ahtisaari plan by replacing the UN protectorate there with a strong police and judicial system in which EU officials would supervise Kosovo's independence for a limited period. NATO forces would remain in the province.

While the Kosovo leadership overwhelmingly accepted the Ahtisaari plan, Boris Tadic, the Serb president, and Vojislav Kostunica, the Serb prime minister, openly rejected the plan, saying they would never agree to Kosovo becoming independent from Serbia.

Russia insisted on giving the diplomatic track another chance, which the U.S. and the EU accepted but only under conditions. The talks, which started last month, would last 120 days. The EU appointed Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to London, to lead a troika that also includes Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko of Russia and Frank Wisner, the U.S. special envoy for Kosovo.

Bomb kills 2 in Pristina

A bomb killed two people when it ripped through shops in the capital of Kosovo on Monday in what the police said was probably a showdown between criminal gangs, Reuters reported from Pristina.

Eleven people were wounded in the explosion, which happened shortly after 2 a.m., including one who was in critical condition, hospital staff said.

"Police are not ruling out anything, but it seems it is more likely related to crime," a police spokesman, Veton Elshani, said. "It was caused by an explosive device."

Pristina has seen small bomb attacks, rarely fatal, at times of political tension over the past three years as ethnic Albanian pressure for independence grows. Violence by organized crime gangs is also common.

[Source: By Judy Dempsey, International Herald Tribune, Berlin, 24Sep07]

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