The European Union, United States and Russia urged Serbs and Albanians on Wednesday to avert any slide to violence following the failure of their talks on the future of the breakaway province of Kosovo.
Kosovo's 90-percent Albanian majority is preparing to declare independence within months, and is counting on recognition from Washington and the major EU capitals -- a move Serbia says will unleash chaos in the fragile Balkans.
Regrettably the parties were unable to reach agreement on status, EU envoy Wolfgang Ischinger told a news conference in Vienna after three days of talks in the Austrian spa town of Baden, the last under international mediation.
U.S. envoy Frank Wisner said the peace of the region was very much at stake. Ischinger, Wisner and Russia's Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko issued a joint communique urging both sides to keep their pledges to preserve peace.
The major powers had repeated the importance of maintaining peace, avoiding incitement to violence and jeopardizing security in the region, the communique said.
Wisner said evident tensions exist. There was no immediate prospect of violence, he said, but we are going into a very difficult time when final status will be at issue and must be resolved.
War engulfed Kosovo in 1998 when Albanian guerrillas took on the forces of the late Serb autocrat Slobodan Milosevic. Over 10,000 civilians were killed and 800,000 Albanians forced to flee before NATO intervened, bombing Serbia for three months.
NATO and the United Nations took over the province, but many Serbs fled fearing Albanian revenge. Albanian riots erupted in March 2004, killing 19 people and catching NATO peacekeepers flat-footed. The West said Kosovo's limbo was unsustainable.
SERB 'ACTION PLAN'
The mediators will visit Serbia and Kosovo on Monday for the last time, before reporting to the United Nations by December 10.
Beyond that point their unity is unlikely to survive. Russia backs Serbia in opposing independence and wants more time for talks. The West says the search for compromise is exhausted and independence must come.
In Moscow, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the situation as very alarming.
We can't accept this is a unique case and that independence is inevitable, he was quoted by Russia's Interfax as saying.
I think that only now many of those who have been supporting calls for the speedy declaration of Kosovar independence have started to realize what consequences can occur for this region. he was quoted as saying.
The Baden Conference was the last meeting in a second attempt launched in August, after Moscow blocked a Western-backed independence plan at the United Nations. The two sides had already talked past each other for 13 months.
Kosovo Albanian leaders, representing 90 percent of the two million population, intend to declare independence probably in early 2008, with the promise of U.S. and European recognition.
The EU will deploy 1,400 police officers, but the messy ending to the talks and dim prospects of a new U.N. resolution leave a separate EU-led supervisory mission up in the air.
Diplomats say that of the EU's 27 members, only Cyprus and Greece remain firmly opposed to recognition of Kosovo.
Kosovo prime minister-in-waiting Hashim Thaci, who fought Serb forces as a guerrilla commander in the 1998-99 war, regretted there had been no deal. But he said there would be no violence and no return to open conflict.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said a unilateral declaration would be a crime against international law.
His government is drawing up an 'Action Plan' which diplomats say could include obstructive measures and embargos. Serbia has raised the possibility that Serbs whose mini-republic makes up half of Bosnia could, in their turn, secede.