updated 2/25/2008 12:21:02 PM ET 2008-02-25T17:21:02

Russia's foreign minister claimed that NATO and the EU have been considering using force to keep Serbs from leaving Kosovo following its declaration of independence, according to remarks broadcast Monday.

Sergey Lavrov, in an interview on state-run Vesti-24 television, said it would undermine security in the Balkans and Europe.

Lavrov suggested that the mission was seeking help from NATO forces to ease its deployment in Serb-populated northern Kosovo and to keep Serbs in the region.

"We have information that the EU mission, attempting to deploy in Serb enclaves _ and the Serbs do not want this _ is trying to draw the NATO forces for Kosovo onto its side," he said. He added that "the question of using force to hold back Serbs who do not want to remain under Pristina's authority ... is being seriously discussed."

Lavrov also said "there is information that NATO contingents are trying to use force" to close the borders between Kosovo and "the rest of Serbia." He did not say where he got his information.

"This will only lead to yet another 'frozen conflict' and will push the prospects for stabilizing Europe _ and first of all for stabilizing the Balkans _ far to the side," he said.

'Neutral and impartial'
NATO spokesman James Appathurai, responding to Lavrov's comments, said the alliance would be evenhanded in its treatment of all Kosovo residents.

"NATO forces in Kosovo have a clear mandate from the U.N. Security Council to establish a safe and secure environment for all residents, majority and minority alike," he said. "They have done that task in a neutral and impartial way since the day they deployed in Kosovo and they will continue to do so."

The EU did not immediately respond to the foreign minister's remarks.

But EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana earlier said the civilian and police mission the bloc plans to send to Kosovo would cover the whole territory, including the northern parts where most of the territory's Serb residents live.

Lavrov also stressed Russia's support for Serbian efforts to restore its territorial integrity and said Western support for the breakaway region's independence declaration would undermine Middle East peace efforts by encouraging Palestinians to reject talks.

He also suggested that territorial disputes in ex-Soviet Georgia could only be resolved through a mutually acceptable solution _ the latest indication that Russia has no plans to recognize the independence claims of separatists Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the foreseeable future.

Russia backs Serbia
Russia has vocally condemned Kosovo's independence declaration and its recognition by the U.S. and major EU powers, saying it violates international law and threatens to destroy the existing system of international relations.

"We actively support Belgrade's demand ... to restore the territorial integrity of Serbia, restore the country's sovereignty," Lavrov said in the interview.

"It is unacceptable when, for the first time in postwar history, a state that is a U.N. member has been dismembered _ dismembered contrary to all the principles, all the foundations that until now have been applied in resolving territorial conflicts," he added.

Moscow has said that an 1,800-member EU police and justice mission is illegal because it does not have approval from the U.N. Security Council, where Russia is a veto-wielding permanent member.

Reiterating Russia's warning that recognizing Kosovo's independence would encourage groups seeking sovereign states worldwide, Lavrov focused on the Middle East.

"Now individual Palestinian politicians are starting to say that it is useless to continue talks with Israel," he said. "Opinions are being expressed that following the unilateral proclamation of the independence of Kosovo, absolutely the same should be done with a Palestinian state."

Turning to Georgia's separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, Lavrov avoided a direct answer when asked whether Moscow would recognize their independence claims, as some Russian politicians have urged.

Doing so, however, would undermine Russia's claim to moral authority over the Kosovo dispute and risk causing a major break with West and encouraging separatism within Russia, and Lavrov said Moscow wants the disputes to be resolved through negotiations with the Georgian government.

"I don't know what the outcome of the talks may be but I have no doubt that it can be only mutually acceptable," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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