The EU, the United States and Russia urged Serbs and Albanians yesterday to avert any slide to violence following the failure of their talks on the future of the breakaway province of Kosovo.
"Regrettably the parties were unable to reach agreement on status," European Union envoy Wolfgang Ischinger told a news conference in Vienna after three days of talks at a spa hotel in Baden, near the Austrian capital.
US envoy Frank Wisner said the peace of the region was "very much at stake". Along with Ischinger he urged both sides to keep their pledges to preserve peace and dialogue beyond the end of formal negotiations.
Wisner said "evident tensions exist" in the volatile region. There was "no immediate prospect of violence ... but we are going into a very difficult time".
War engulfed Kosovo in 1998 when Albanian guerrillas took on the forces of the late Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic. Over 10,000 civilians were reportedly killed and 800,000 Albanians forced to flee before NATO intervened, bombing Serbia for three months.
The alliance and the United Nations took over the province, but many Serbs fled fearing Albanian revenge. Albanian riots erupted in March 2004, in which 19 people were killed and hundreds of homes burned over two days, forcing the West to start seeking a permanent solution.
Ischinger, Wisner and Russia's Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko will make final visits to Serbia and Kosovo next Monday before submitting a report to the United Nations, due by December 10.
Beyond that point their unity is unlikely to survive.
Russia backs Serbia in opposing independence as demanded by the Kosovo Albanians and wants more time for talks. The West says the search for compromise is over and independence must come.
"The (mediating) troika explored together with both sides every reasonable status outcome for Kosovo, the three envoys said in a joint communique ending the Baden Conference.
In meetings at the highest level of the past four months, the major powers had repeated "the importance of maintaining peace, avoiding incitement to violence and jeopardizing security in the region", the communique said.
Talks on Kosovo's future began two years ago. The meeting between Serbs and Albanians in Baden was the sixth and last in a second attempt launched in August, after Moscow blocked a Western-backed independence plan at the United Nations.
The United States and European Union say mediation ends with the report to the United Nations.
Kosovo Albanian leaders, representing 90 percent of the 2 million population, intend to declare independence, probably in early 2008, with the promise of US and EU recognition to follow.
Source: China Daily/Agencies