The dispute at a Security Council meeting on Kosovo illustrated the chasm between the two sides just days before long-awaited UN-organised talks begin in Vienna on Monday on the future of the Serbian province.

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since Nato bombs drove out Serb forces in 1999 during a campaign of ethnic cleansing under Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president.

Boris Tadic, the Serbian president, offered Kosovo wide autonomy and again rejected independence.

He then told the council Kosovo's status could be renegotiated "after an agreed period of time, say 20 years".

Bajram Kosumi, the Kosovo prime minister and the first Pristina government official to attend a council meeting, rejected drawn out talks, saying: "I believe that this is the appropriate moment where we have to end and close the Kosovo question.

"I do not think that we should leave room for other periods to deal with the Kosovo question.

"Simply, we need to give the people of Kosovo their chance to create their own lives and live in freedom."

Breakaways

Both Tadic and Andrei Denisov, Russia's UN ambassador, warned that Kosovo independence could have an impact on the resolution of other conflicts.

Vladimir Putin said other regions
might also want autonomy

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has suggested, for instance, that if Kosovo were granted independence, the same might be appropriate for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia provinces in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Soren Jessen-Petersen, the top UN envoy in Kosovo, told Kosumi it was important that minority rights for Serbs and others be protected, among other demands by the council.

"The message is clear. The sooner and the faster that we institute in Kosovo implemented standards, the sooner we will have a decision on the status in Kosovo," he said.

Participation

But Jessen-Petersen also said the talks needed participation from the Serbs in Kosovo and not just Belgrade.

The Serb, Turk, Bosnian, Roma and other minority communities, which account for 10% to 12% of the population, have faced isolation, insecurity and outbursts of violence from the ethnic Albanian majority. Many expelled Serbs have not been able to return home.

"Any settlement should conclude during 2006"

Adam Thomson,
British envoy

In response, the Serbs have maintained parallel administrative structures tied to Belgrade and rejected UN overtures to participate in Kosovo.

The European Union and a group of countries acting as advisers, which includes Russia, want the status dispute resolved this year.

Adam Thomson, the British envoy, said: "Any settlement should conclude during 2006.

"And it clearly cannot disregard the aspirations of 90% of the population of Kosovo, so independence is a realistic option."

But he said Kosovo leaders "must understand they need to demonstrate they are genuinely committed to minority rights".