( Reuters ) - EU foreign ministers criticized on Monday a threat by the front-runner in Kosovo elections to declare the independence of the breakaway Serb province in a matter of weeks, urging calm on all sides.
Ex-guerrilla Hashim Thaci, tipped to become prime minister of the majority ethnic Albanian province after Saturday's ballot, said parliament would declare independence immediately after a December 10 deadline for international mediation efforts.
While the United States backs Kosovo independence, the European Union is divided. Around half a dozen EU capitals are reluctant to support any such move without formal U.N. blessing.
"Mr Thaci has to understand there is a difference between being a politician in opposition and a responsible prime minister," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told reporters as he arrived for an EU meeting with counterparts in Brussels.
Bildt, whose country is among those who have concerns about a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, urged Thaci to concentrate on uniting the ethnically divided province and warned that any hasty moves could lead to it being isolated.
"I don't think they want to be independent from the international community," he said, noting that Pristina would continue to need international help for years to come.
Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said Thaci's call was not a surprise but urged Kosovo Albanians and Serbs not to exacerbate the already growing tensions between the two sides.
"The EU has asked all parties in this climate to behave carefully. That applies to both Belgrade and Pristina."
The EU is anxious to avoid a repeat of its dilemma in the 1990s, when internal splits over how to deal with the Balkans wars showed its ineffectiveness as a foreign policy player.
"There is a perception that we (the EU) should be in the lead on this and that to do that, we must get our act together," said one EU diplomat of efforts on Monday to get a common line.
Several states neighboring the Balkans plus Germany and Spain are most hesitant to back a unilateral declaration.
Diplomats say Madrid and Berlin can be brought round if it is clear that all attempts to reach a compromise between Serbia and Kosovo's 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority have been made.
Wolfgang Ischinger, the German diplomat leading mediation alongside U.S. and Russian counterparts, is due to meet Serb and Kosovo Albanian leaders in Brussels on Tuesday.
Few participants hold out much hope for a breakthrough. The mass boycott of Saturday's parliamentary elections by Kosovo Serbs -- in protest against the wide support for independence among Kosovo Albanian politicians -- only underlined the divide.
Serbia has offered broad autonomy, but the Kosovo Albanians say they will accept nothing less than independence.
"I think we still have to wait until the very last minute," said Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency. He said that after Tuesday, two more mediation rounds had been scheduled before December 10.
Diplomats played down the chances of mediators offering the two sides an interim compromise that ignored the issue of independence, an idea floated by some close to the process.
Such a "status-neutral" agreement would try to regulate relations between Pristina and Belgrade without pre-judging any future move to decide Kosovo's final status.
One diplomat from an EU state in favor of Kosovo independence said the idea was unworkable because Belgrade and Serb ally Russia would only agree to it if EU states guaranteed not to recognize any unilateral independence of Kosovo.