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Future of Kosovska Mitrovica

PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro-Negotiators seeking to put an end to the dispute over Kosovo's postwar legal status will tackle one of the toughest questions next week, who will control the territory's only ethnically divided town.

Kosovska Mitrovica is cut in two by the river Ibar, which separates the town's Serb-dominated north and its ethnic Albanian south.

Western envoys conducting U.N.-sponsored talks between Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and Serbia are to discuss proposals for the town's future on Thursday in Vienna, Austria, as part of discussions on local government reform.

The town, 45 kilometers (30 miles) north of Kosovo's capital, Pristina, has been the scene of violent clashes in the past and has come to symbolize the deep rift between the Kosovo's two main communities.

It is also the last urban foothold for the 100,000 Serbs remaining in Kosovo after the war.
Before negotiators discuss ethnic Albanians' demands for Kosovo's independence from Serbia, U.N. mediators have been trying to steer the two sides toward an agreement over control of individual municipalities.

Kosovo has been a U.N. protectorate since the war between Serb military forces and ethnic Albanian separatists ended in 1999. In handing back control, Kosovo's international administration wants to be sure the Serb minority is protected.

Under the plans being discussed, municipalities with higher numbers of Serbs are to be given the power to run their own local affairs.

Kosovska Mitrovica, the only ethnically divided town in Kosovo, presents a tricky problem.
On Friday, a Berlin-based think-tank presented negotiators with its recommendations.
The European Stability Initiative argued against plans to set up a transitional international administration to govern the town.

Instead, the policy institute said a permanent solution to the town's local government structure should not be put off and the international community's role in the town should be to reinforce security and help the town's economic development as a way to bring the communities together.
Some U.N officials have suggested an executive role for the international mission, and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders have discussed the creation of two municipal bodies, one in the south and another in the north, governed by a single executive council, which would be run by an international administrator for the next few years. The institute also said security should be increased in the area to send "strong and clear signals to hardliners on both sides that violence will not prevent the implementation of a political settlement."

It also proposed the founding of a multiethnic university as a flagship project, similar to a model used in neighboring Macedonia to reconcile the ethnic Albanians and Macedonians after the 2001 conflict. Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority wants independence, while its Serb minority wants it to remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia.

As for Kosovska Mitrovica, which is linked to mainland Serbia, Serbs want to keep control the northern part of the town, which they consider their last urban stronghold. However, ethnic Albanians reject its division along ethnic lines, fearing it could set a precedent leading to the partition of the rest of the province.

The U.N.-mediated talks aim to find a solution for Kosovo's disputed status by the end of the year.

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