Serbia's president on Thursday formally proposed dividing Kosovo between its independence-seeking Albanian majority and a Serb minority as the chief U.N. mediator met with government officials.
Martti Athisaari, the envoy who was appointed earlier this month by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and is on his initial fact-finding mission in the Balkans, said the troubled province's final status will ultimately be decided by the Security Council after his report.
The U.N.-sponsored process is aimed at settling one of the most intractable disputes left over from the ethnic and sectarian wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Kosovo, considered by the Serbs to be the cradle of their statehood and religion, legally is part of Serbia-Montenegro but has been administered by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombing halted a Serb crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians.
Serb President Boris Tadic offered his proposal to the Serb government on Thursday, saying Kosovo should be divided along ethnic lines to give Albanians virtual independence while keeping the province within Serbia's borders.
Government officials said Thursday the proposal will be a part of Serbia's negotiating package.
The proposal, which was first unveiled by Tadic during his recent visit to Russia, has been rejected by ethnic Albanian leaders who are seeking nothing but full independence for the whole province.
It also drew angry reactions from Serb ultranationalists who demanded that Tadic be impeached by the parliament for ceding part of "sovereign Serbian territory" to the Kosovo Albanians.
The division of Kosovo, or its return to the direct Belgrade administration, has been rejected by the United States — which wields veto power as a permanent Security Council member — and the European Union. But Russia and China — who also have veto power in the council — oppose Kosovo's independence.
Also Thursday, the Serb government named a negotiating team for the U.N.-mediated Kosovo talks that will be led by Tadic, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Serbia-Montenegro Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic.
Ahtisaari met separately with Kostunica and Draskovic and the Serb officials insisted on their government's rejection of Kosovo's independence.
Draskovic warned that Kosovo's independence from Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia, "would cause a chain of dramatic turbulence in the region."
Athisaari said Wednesday that a negotiated solution for Kosovo will depend on how fast the two sides move forward to end the dispute over the province.
"Timing will depend on the parties, how they move forward, how they cooperate," Ahtisaari said.
Thousands ethnic Albanians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes during the Serb crackdown in the province in 1998-99.
About 150,000 Serbs then fled the province in the face of attacks and threats from ethnic Albanian extremists.
The postwar bloodshed in Kosovo also targeted Serbs' property and churches. An estimated 100,000 Serbs live in virtual ghettos in Kosovo where about two million ethnic Albanians represent a vast majority.
Some 17,500 NATO-led peacekeepers patrol Kosovo.