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Serbia in suspense before U.N. proposal

French KFOR peacekeepers patrol the Serb dominated northern part of the ethnic divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007, a day before U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari arrives to the region to present his proposal on Kosovo's future. KFOR is stepping up security in the province on the eve of the unveiling of a U.N proposal on the future of the disputed province. (AP PHOTO/Visar Kryeziu)

BELGRADE, Serbia --Suspense gripped Serbia on Thursday, a day before the unveiling of a U.N. proposal for Kosovo's future, a historic plan that officials say will map out a road to conditional nationhood for the bitterly contested province.

Western diplomats familiar with the details of U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari's plan said it will not include the "I-word" -- independence. But they said the blueprint, which will still need approval from the Security Council, would lay the groundwork for eventual nationhood.

"Throughout the text, Ahtisaari has pointedly refrained from using the 'independence' word, but the proposals in effect describe a status outcome that might be summarized as independence subject to international supervision," one Western official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Kosovo has been a U.N. protectorate since 1999, when NATO airstrikes stopped Serbia's crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanian rebels. Ethnic Albanians, who account for 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million population, have rejected Serbia's offer of broad autonomy within Serbian borders and demand outright independence.

Diplomats warned that the road map -- to be presented Friday to Serb leaders in Belgrade and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership in the provincial capital of Pristina -- would disappoint people on both sides of the ethnic divide.

"The Serbs will have to accept the loss of Kosovo," the Western official said. And Kosovo's Albanian majority "will have to accept continued international presence, significant limitations on their sovereignty and a very generous package of rights for the Kosovo Serbs."

The trappings of independence, the official added, would include a flag and anthem along with the right to seek membership in international organizations -- although a seat at the United Nations would by no means be assured.

If the proposal eventually wins Security Council approval, the U.S. and other countries could formally recognize Kosovo's independence.

But there were concerns that the plan could trigger a showdown in the Security Council between the United States -- long an advocate of an independent Kosovo -- and Russia, another veto-holding member of the council. Moscow is a traditional ally of Serbia.

In a snub to Ahtisaari, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica refused to meet with the former Finnish president. Instead, Ahtisaari will lay out his plan to pro-Western President Boris Tadic.

Kostunica, a nationalist, has accused Ahtisaari of working in the interest of Kosovo's Albanians and of ignoring Serbia's claims to Kosovo as the heart of its ancient homeland.

Kostunica has threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with any country that recognizes Kosovo as an independent state. That drew a stern rebuke Thursday from the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, which issued a statement saying it was "very disappointed by this approach."

Slobodan Samardzic, a member of Serbia's Kosovo negotiating team, told state-run Serbian television that the U.N. plan "is against Serbia's platform, which defines Kosovo as its integral part."

In Kosovo, where only about 100,000 Serbs still live -- many complaining they are subject to discrimination and reprisal attacks -- some Serbs expressed doubts that Ahtisaari's plan will adequately protect them.

"I don't believe that Ahtisaari will help Kosovo Serbs a lot," said Aleksandar Spasic, a 76-year-old retiree in the ethnically divided city of Kosovoska Mitrovica, a frequent flash point for violence. "But I will never leave Kosovo. ... I was born here and this is where I want to die."

Even ethnic Albanians were skittish, not knowing what to expect.

"To be honest, I am a bit scared of what we are coming to," said Hasan Bytyqi, a merchant.

Kosovo's prime minister, Agim Ceku, appealed for calm and the 16,500-member NATO-led peacekeeping force stepped up patrols.

Ceku acknowledged that the plan would not please everyone. "Not all will be what we anticipated, deserve or wish," he cautioned Thursday evening, but noted that both sides would still have a chance to comment on the draft in the coming weeks.

Diplomats say the plan will recommend the establishment of an international representative -- similar to the office set up in Bosnia after that country's bloody 1992-95 war -- to oversee day-to-day affairs.

There also would be provisions for a Kosovo security force that would be overseen by NATO, officials said.


Associated Press Writers Thomas Wagner in London, Garentina Kraja in Kosovo and William J. Kole in Vienna contributed to this story.