Talks on the future status of Kosovo soured Monday as rival Serbian and ethnic Albanian negotiators clashed bitterly over the breakaway province's insistence on independence.
Both sides made angry statements at the latest round of internationally mediated talks — raising the likelihood that Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority will follow through on a threat to declare independence unilaterally if the last-ditch negotiations don't produce a settlement.
Kosovo's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, told reporters that Monday's meeting in Vienna "unfortunately resulted in complete disagreement and highlighted the differences" with Serbia, which insists on retaining at least formal sovereignty over the breakaway southern province.
In especially harsh terms, Sejdiu denounced Belgrade's resistance as reminiscent of the late Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, who sent in troops in 1998-99 in a failed bid to crush a rebel insurgency.
The province's prime minister, Agim Ceku, was even more blunt: "Independence is not something we are asking for."
"I think we are too far away from each other," he said.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership has said that if there is no agreement by Dec. 10 — the deadline for envoys from the U.S., European Union and Russia to report back to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — it will unilaterally declare independence.
Although Kosovo formally remains part of Serbia, it has been administered by the U.N. and NATO since the Western military alliance intervened in 1999.
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, whose government is offering Kosovo broad autonomy, brushed off the Albanians' threat to break away and seek recognition after Dec. 10.
"We're not in the business of meeting deadlines. We're not in the business of delivering promises," he said. "We're in the business of statesmanship. We're in the business of trying to provide peace and stability for all the people in the western Balkans."
Both sides agreed to meet again in Vienna on Nov. 5. But the tone of their remarks suggested that the chances of a negotiated settlement were fading fast.
"This was probably one of the worst meetings we've had," senior ethnic Albanian negotiator Veton Surroi told The Associated Press.
EU envoy Wolfgang Ischinger, U.S. representative Frank Wisner and Russian diplomat Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko presented the rival sides with a 14-point document aimed at reaching common ground.
The envoys' proposal did not explicitly mention independence, but it assured Kosovo's ethnic Albanians that Serbia "will not re-establish a physical presence in Kosovo."
It also said the international community would retain a civilian and military presence in Kosovo even after its status is worked out. About 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers patrol the province, which formally remains a part of Serbia.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates — acknowledging Kosovo's uncertain future and the possibility of further unrest — urged NATO to be prepared.
"Nations must plan for what happens after Dec. 10," Gates said Monday during a visit to Ukraine. "I'm asking all nations to keep their forces in KFOR regardless of what happens after Dec. 10," he added, using the acronym for the alliance's Kosovo force.
Although the U.S. strongly supports independence and has signaled it would recognize such a declaration, its European allies have misgivings about recognizing any new state if the U.N. Security Council has not done so.
Kosovo's Albanian-language newspaper Koha Ditore reported Monday that Wisner has told all 27 of the EU's ambassadors to the United Nations to prepare for Kosovo's independence in January. It cited unidentified EU officials as saying further delays would be seen as an attempt to "undermine U.S. diplomacy."
A previous attempt to negotiate Kosovo's final status collapsed earlier this year, when Serbia and Russia rejected a U.N.-brokered plan to grant Kosovo internationally supervised independence.
Sejdiu, Kosovo's president, warned that patience was growing thin.
"We consider this to be the last and final period of talks," he told reporters. "We will not accept more talks on this issue. We insist this process must be concluded as soon as possible. Kosovo cannot be held hostage."