BELGRADE/PRISTINA (Reuters) - United Nations envoy Martti Ahtisaari on Friday unveiled a plan to set the breakaway province of Kosovo on a path to independence, an outcome immediately welcomed by Kosovo Albanians and rejected by Serbia.
Ahtisaari's proposal did not mention the word "independence" or address the loss of Serbia's sovereignty over the territory. But both sides said this was clearly what it implied.
Prime Minister Agim Ceku, a former guerrilla in the 1998-99 Kosovo Liberation Army which fought the forces of the late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, said the document "is very clear for Kosovo's future".
After a meeting in Serbia, President Boris Tadic agreed that the plan "opens up the possibility of independence". But Tadic said he told the envoy: "Serbia and I as its president will never accept the independence of Kosovo."
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has condemned Ahtisaari for "anti-Serb bias", and took the lead in rejecting his plan in advance, refusing even to meet the envoy on Friday.
The plan gives Kosovo access to international bodies usually reserved for sovereign states and to use its own flag, anthem and other symbols.
"The settlement provides for an international representative to supervise the implementation," Ahtisaari told a news conference. The NATO-led peace force "will continue to provide a safe and secure environment ... as long as necessary".
It includes measures to "promote sustainable economic development including Kosovo's ability to apply for membership in international financial institutions", he added.
Ahtisaari declined several opportunities to address the issue of Kosovo's ultimate status, saying this would be settled by the United Nations Security Council once he formally presented his plan, following a last round of consultations.
He said the diametrically opposed positions of the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians were "extremely fixed", but he was allowing them "one more chance" to find compromise.
Invitations would be sent for a meeting in Vienna on Feb. 13 and it would be up to Serbs and leaders of Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority to decide whether to turn up.
The former Finnish president mediated months of largely fruitless talks in 2006. "Maybe they have had enough," he said. "I can't force anyone to participate."
There was no point in waiting for a new government to be formed following Serbia's inconclusive election last month, he said. "Whether it's now or a little bit later, the same people would be on either side of the table."
"The final process starts when the plan enters the Security Council," Ahtisaari said, indicating that could be next month.
The European Union urged both sides to respond "positively and constructively" to Ahtisaari's proposals. The U.S. State Department said the proposal "is fair and balanced. It is a blueprint for a stable, prosperous and multi-ethnic Kosovo".
The poor landlocked province of two million is cherished by Serbs as the medieval homeland of their nation.
Kosovo has been run by the U.N. since 1999 when NATO bombing forced Milosevic to withdraw troops accused of killing 10,000 Albanians during a counter-insurgency war. About 100,000 ethnic Serbs remain. Some predict violence and secession, and both NATO and the U.N. mission have made contingency plans for a crisis.
"There is nothing more we can do," said Kosovo Serb accountant Milica Knezevic, "there's no life for us here."
President Tadic has told Serbs Kosovo might already be lost.
Kostunica says he will never accept this and is urging all parties in the next government to solemnly pledge that Serbia will cut ties with any country recognising the province as an independent state, including major Western powers.
(Additional reporting by Beti Bilandzic, Monika Lajhner, Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade and Matt Robinson in Pristina)
Copyright © 2006 Reuters