Sun, Mar 12, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Kosovo's new PM, Agim Ceku, insists on independence

AP AND DPA , PRISTINA, SERBIA-MONTENEGRO AND SALZBURG

Kosovo's new prime minister said anything short of independence from Serbia was "out of the question," but emphasized in an interview on the day of his election that respect for the province's Serb minority would be a priority for his government.

Serbia had opposed the appointment of Lieutenant General Agim Ceku, the former leader of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, accusing him of war crimes and saying his election could be detrimental to ongoing UN-led talks on Kosovo's future. He denies those charges as politically motivated.

"My conscience is completely clean," Ceku said in an interview just hours before he was elected on Friday. "I know I never acted, saw, ordered or did something that violates the customs of war."

Kosovo has been under UN administration since a 1999 NATO-led war with Serbia resulted in the withdrawal of Serb forces from the province which is still legally part of Serbia.

The Serbs want Belgrade to retain control, while the ethnic Albanian majority insists on full independence.

"Other solutions are out of the question," Ceku said. "The only solution that guarantees that this place will be functional and stable is independence."

But Ceku, 44, pledged to make the security of its minorities, notably the Serbs, a priority for his government.

Following his election on Friday in a 65-33 vote, Ceku made similar comments to the parliament in a speech that was broadcast live and called on minorities to participate in Kosovo's political life and consider Kosovo their home.

Ceku became commander of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla force that fought Serb troops during Kosovo's 1998-1999 war, which ended with the NATO air bombardment.

About 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, which has a population of about 2 million people. More than 200,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians fled in after the war, fearing reprisals by ethnic Albanians, and only a trickle have returned.

Ceku is the province's fourth prime minister.

A political reshuffle had forced the previous prime minister, Bajram Kosumi, to resign last week. Kosumi's predecessor, Ramush Haradinaj, resigned after being indicted last year on war crimes charges by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

The prime minister's position is the province's top job, and Ceku also becomes a member of the five-man delegation participating in the UN-mediated talks on the province's future. The talks started last month and aim to resolve the dispute by the end of the year.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic warned yesterday at a meeting of EU foreign ministers that granting independence to Kosovo would be "a disaster" for the region.

"We will not accept full independence," said Draskovic in an interview with Austria's Kurier newspaper.

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