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Kosovo threatens to break away if last-ditch talks fail

VIENNA - With observers warning of the threat of renewed unrest in Kosovo, the province's prime minister vowed yesterday to declare independence if a final push for a diplomatic settlement by Dec. 10 doesn't result in statehood.

The ultimatum by Prime Minister Agim Ceku reflected the growing impatience among Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the province's 2 million people and are tired of waiting for a formal break from Serbia.

International envoys overseeing a last-ditch round of negotiations said there was no progress yesterday in a closed-door session in Vienna on ending the stalemate with Serbia, which insists on keeping Kosovo within its borders.

Serbia's minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, said he offered Kosovo's leadership broad autonomy that would give it "more powers than it ever had in its history."

But Ceku said Albanians would settle for nothing short of full independence - and would declare it if a Dec. 10 UN deadline passes without a negotiated settlement.

"No more delay. We cannot afford further uncertainty. We need a decision," Ceku said.

Ceku said he would press to "open a way for us to declare independence." If that doesn't happen, he said, "we have to declare, and we are going to ask the international community to recognize us."

Although Kosovo remains formally part of Serbia, it has been run by the UN and NATO since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended a Serbian military crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in the southern province.

A UN proposal would have given Kosovo internationally supervised statehood. Serbia bitterly opposed it, and Russia sided with Belgrade, effectively blocking approval by the UN Security Council.

Ceku's warning drew an immediate response in Belgrade, where Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica urged the international community not to let Kosovo break away. "The Serbian government will annul any act of unilateral independence," he said yesterday.

The specter of a unilateral declaration of independence also appeared to rattle the so-called "troika" of US, Russian, and European Union envoys who are supervising the latest talks.

EU representative Wolfgang Ischinger said the talks would continue in mid-September and at next month's UN General Assembly in New York, and that the two sides would meet face to face "as soon as possible."

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