KOSOVO: Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders will push for independence today at their first face-to-face meeting with Serbia's top officials since Nato bombing forced Belgrade's troops to withdraw from the region in 1999.
Serbia's president Boris Tadic and prime minister Vojislav Kostunica, and their Kosovo counterparts, Fatmir Sejdiu and Agim Ceku, will set out opposing visions of Kosovo's final status in Vienna.
Washington, the United Nations and the European Union, want the issue settled this year, but Belgrade has rejected the only solution that Kosovo's 90 per cent Albanian majority will countenance - full independence.
"We are going to Vienna to offer arguments in favour of the independence of Kosovo," said Mr Sejdiu. "We will not step back from this position."
Belgrade's view was equally trenchant. "It would be better for everyone and, of course, for the stability of the whole region, to forget as quickly as possible the dangerous idea of creating a new state on Serbia's territory," said Mr Kostunica. "We must give compromise a chance, we must find the best way of giving Kosovo autonomy within Serbia."
Belgrade has refused to offer more than autonomy for a region many Serbs consider the spiritual heartland of the nation, but which spiralled into bloody chaos in 1998 as ethnic Albanian separatists battled Slobodan Milosevic's forces.
A Nato air bombardment quelled most of the violence the following year but prompted 200,000 Serbs to flee the province amid reprisals from Albanian gangs.
The UN has run the region ever since and about 17,000 Nato troops are stationed there to prevent clashes between the communities.
Analysts warn of a dilemma for the international community: independence for Kosovo would defuse the threat of ethnic Albanian violence, but would strengthen Serb ultra-nationalists who call the Belgrade government a feeble puppet of the West.
Mr Tadic has warned that independence for Kosovo, "if imposed as a solution, would present a new trauma for Serbia . . . It would be counterproductive and lead to a political instability in the region".
Russia has backed its traditional ally Serbia in warning against an imposed solution, partly because it fears separatist unrest in its own volatile north Caucasus region.