U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari arrived in Kosovo Monday on a fact-finding mission before crucial talks that will determine the future of the southern Serbian region Kosovo.
The former Finnish president, appointed by the U.N. earlier this month, is to mediate the process that is expected to close the final chapter on the ethnic wars that shook the region following the disintegration of former Yugoslavia in 1991.
He will also visit the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and Kosovo's neighbors Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.
Ahtisaari will meet U.N. officials in Pristina who have administered the province since the 1999 war.
With no set timeline for the talks, but with an understanding that the process cannot be further delayed, the 68-year-old envoy faces a difficult task - the two former foes have diametrically opposing views on what the future should hold for Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians seek independence for the province, while Belgrade wants the region of 2 million people formally to remain part of Serbia.
Ethnic Albanians account for 90 percent of Kosovo's population. About 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, being expelled from the region by Albanian paramilitaries.
The upcoming talks are likely to increase tensions in the deeply polarized region and there are fears extremists could try to disrupt the process.
Ahtisaari, however, is no stranger to the dispute. In 1999, he negotiated a deal with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that ended the NATO bombing of Serb forces.
That deal put Kosovo under U.N. administration, backed up by a 17,500-strong NATO-led force.
Ahtisaari also has acted as a U.N. peace broker in Namibia, and earlier this year he mediated talks between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels in Aceh province that ended one of the longest wars in modern history.
In a related development, Serbia's parliament passed a resolution Monday rejecting independence for Kosovo. The document says that "any imposed solution will be considered illegitimate and unacceptable" by Belgrade.
The resolution leaves open the possibility that a national referendum be held in Serbia to approve the outcome of negotiations on the breakaway province. The resolution was backed with 205 votes in the 250-member assembly.
"Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said as he outlined the resolution in the parliament Monday. "Serbia is ready for a compromise, but it firmly rejects the severance of a part of its territory," the AP quoted Kostunica as saying.