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KOSOVO: LAVROV PLEDGES SUPPORT TO SERBS IN STATUS TALKS

Belgrade, 24 March (AKI) - Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has denied Western press reports that Russia and China would not oppose Kosovo independence in the United Nations Security Council if the issue was put on the UN agenda, and said that the solution should be a negotiated one, resulting from direct talks between Pristina and Belgrade.

Russia and China have promised the United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice that they would not oppose independence of the UN-administered Serbian province - Western media reported recently. But Lavrov on Friday told Belgrade weekly NIN that such claims were “an ordinary lie.”

According to Lavrov, “the future status of Kosovo must be a result of direct talks between the Serb and Kosovan authorities. An imposed solution would be neither stable nor long lasting and would be a constant cause of destabilisation in the region,” he said.

Lavrov also reiterated this position when he addressed the Russian parliament in Moscow on Friday. He regretted that Serbian side wasn’t sufficiently active in the Kosovo talks at the moment. “They (Serbs) should be more determined and we shall support them,” Lavrov said. “We can’t be bigger Serbs than the Serbs themselves,” he pointed out. He emphasised, however, that Moscow would protect its own interests in Kosovo, “pragmatically and without needless confrontations”.

Serb and Kosovan officials have this year held two rounds of talks on the future status of Kosovo, under the auspices of UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari. These have focused on ssed on practical issues such as policing with the aim of decentralising more power to local authorities. The ultimate issue of Kosovo's independence - opposed by Serbs but sought by its overwhelmingly Muslim, 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority - will be conditional on satisfactory reform of local government and respect for minorities in the province - where ethnic tensions persist, according to experts.

The troubled, 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority province of Kosovo, while still legally part of Serbia, has been under UN administration since 1999, when NATO airstrikes and an ethnic Albanian separatist uprising forced Serb troops to withdraw.

Ethnic riots in Kosovo in March, 2004 left 19 people dead and 900 injured, 800 homes, 34 churches and monasteries were damaged, several thousand Serbs were forced to flee their homes, and a mosque was burned down. The riots, in which members of the international peacekeeping and Kosovo police forces died, broke out after two ethnic Albanian boys were found drowned in the Ibar river, near the village of Cabra.

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