NATO urges U.N. on Kosovo status

( AP ) - NATO officials urged the United Nations on Wednesday to endorse a controversial plan that would grant independence to Serbia's breakaway province, despite opposition by Russia and other U.N. Security Council members.

"We in NATO want to see the Security Council discuss this issue and come to a resolution" based on proposals put forth last month by U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, alliance spokesman James Appathurai said.

Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, recommended that the impoverished region of 2 million be granted internationally supervised statehood - a proposal welcomed by its 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, but vehemently rejected by its Serb minority and by Serbia.

The 15 members of the U.N. Security Council were in Brussels on the first leg of a fact-finding tour of Kosovo and Serbia, and met with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Wednesday.

"This information mission is an important one, it comes at the right time," the NATO spokesman said. "The secretary-general will want to see a resolution as quickly as possible."

The envoys were holding meetings Wednesday with NATO and EU officials at the Belgian Foreign Ministry.

"We are here to learn what's going on in Kosovo," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said as he arrived at the ministry.

The delegation was holding talks with European enlrgement Commissioner Olli Rehn, and Peter Feith, who is tipped for the post of chief international representative for Kosovo.

"We will have in-depth meetings on both the European dimension and the NATO dimension of this Kosovo issue," said Belgium's U.N. Ambassador Johan Verbeke, who was leading the mission. "This will enable us to act responsibly when deciding on the issue."

Later Wednesday, the envoys were traveling to the Serbian capital of Belgrade, before heading to Kosovo's Pristina for a series of meetings and visits on Friday and Saturday.

The fate of Kosovo is shaping up as one of the thorniest issues in the increasingly difficult relationship between the West and a resurgent Russia. Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations and NATO since 1999, when Serb forces were expelled after a brief aerial war.

U.S. and European Union officials have warned that delaying a resolution on Kosovo's status could trigger another round of interethnic violence between majority Albanians and the minority Serb population there.

But Russia, which holds a Security Council veto, has rejected this argument saying it was being used as "blackmail" to push through a change in Kosovo's current status as an international protectorate. Moscow also supports Belgrade's contention that dismembering a sovereign nation would set a dangerous precedent that could be seized upon by dozens of separatist movements around the world.

The division among the Security Council's permanent members indicates it will be an uphill struggle to reach an agreement. The permanent members are the U.S., Britain, Russia, China and France.

Although Washington backs Ahtisaari's plan, it remains unclear whether it can garner a simple majority in the 15-member Security Council. Several non-permanent members of the body - such as South Africa, Ghana, Congo and Indonesia - are deeply skeptical about setting a precedent in international law that would allow for changes to their colonial-era boundaries.

"We are new in the council, so we want to learn about a problem which we are not very familiar with," Indonesian Ambassador Hasan Kleib said.

Moscow wants the council examine how Resolution 1244, which established the U.N. administration in the province eight years ago, has been implemented on the ground before considering a change of the province's status.

Russian officials have been critical of Kosovo's U.N. administration and of NATO forces in the province for allegedly failing to provide the security necessary for the return of tens of thousands of Serbian refugees forced to flee their homes in 1999.

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