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Albanian and Serbia's officials meet in Baden

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders and Serbia’s officials meet for the final time before a U.N. deadline next month, as talks on province’s status step their critical phase Monday.

High-level delegations from Kosovo and Serbia meet through Wednesday in the Austrian spa town of Baden, just south of Vienna, in talks mediated by a "troika" of envoys from the U.S., European Union and Russia.

The talks are the last before the mediators report back to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Dec. 10, and Kosovo's leaders have held out the possibility of declaring independence unilaterally shortly thereafter if a settlement is not reached.

But a breakthrough in Baden seemed unlikely. Before the talks, both sides remained entrenched in their positions: Kosovo demands full independence from Serbia, which has offered the province broad autonomy but insists it remain part of Serbia.

Although formally still Serbian territory, the southern province has been run by the U.N. and NATO since 1999, when the Western military alliance launched an air war that ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

"We are ready to take our decision, and we hope very soon after that the United States and the European Union will recognize us," Hashim Thaci, a former ethnic Albanian rebel leader who is Kosovo's incoming prime minister, told reporters Monday.

Critics including Russia - an ally of Serbia that insists the U.N. Security Council have the final say on its future status - contend a unilateral declaration of independence would plunge the Balkans back into turmoil and set a dangerous precedent for separatist movements worldwide.

"I hope we are going to achieve an agreement. Otherwise we are going to have instability in the region," Serbian President Boris Tadic said Monday. "We will do everything in our power to avoid this scenario."

On Sunday, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica was more blunt, declaring that an independent Kosovo would be "an illegal and rogue creation."

"Serbia will show that unilateral independence means absolutely nothing," Kostunica said.

The closed-door talks, to be held at a castle hotel in Baden - a town best known for its huge casino - close out a bitter series of meetings between the rival sides since the collapse earlier this year of a blueprint for eventual independence drawn up by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari.

Ahtisaari's plan called for internationally supervised statehood for Kosovo. But Moscow threatened to veto the proposal at the Security Council, prompting the EU, U.S. and Russia to mount a final attempt at a negotiated settlement.

Kosovo's leaders pledged to protect the rights of the province's 100,000-member Serbian minority, but said they will not budge on their drive for statehood.

"Our main goal is the independence of Kosovo," Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu said as he arrived in Baden.

"It is our wish, it is our work all the time, it is our guarantee," he said.

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