Top Serb envoys came to Kosovo Thursday with a rare offer of talks with the troubled province's ethnic Albanian majority. In an unusually conciliatory gesture, a federal leader offered negotiations on "the highest degree of autonomy."

Kosovo's ethnic Albanians dismissed the offer as a ploy to deflect international criticism of Serbia's deadly crackdown on the independence-minded province, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs by 9-to-1. Up to 80 people died in two Serb police offensives in Kosovo last week.The talks proposal "was a farce, worthy only of a criminal and fascist-like regime, and a feeble attempt to tell the world that it is only the Albanian side that refuses to negotiate," said ethnic Albanian leader Adem Demaci, an activist who has spent decades in Serb jails.

Demaci is gaining in influence among ethnic Albanians increasingly impatient with the more peaceful tactics of Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the main ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic League of Kosovo.

The League also rejected any negotiations with the Serbian officials, criticizing their public invitation - issued via state television Wednesday night - and lack of specific agenda.

The Serbian delegation urged the Albanians to change their minds and open talks Friday, according to Yugoslavia's Tanjug news agency.

In Belgrade - the capital of both Yugoslavia and Serbia, the dominant country in the Yugoslav federation - Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Zoran Lilic rejected any negotiations on secession.

"I am certain that there are no relevant political factors in Serbia who are ready to discuss Kosovo's independence.

But I am convinced that there is readiness for talks on the highest level of autonomy according to international standards," Lilic said, according to the Yugoslav news agency.

Any agreement reached through negotiations is better than the "catastrophe we are on the verge of," he added.

Foreign powers, while condemning last week's crackdown, largely do not support the main Albanian demand - Kosovo's independence from Serbia. They fear a change of borders would spark a new Balkan war.

Arriving in Pristina Thursday, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Ratko Markovic said his delegation was "sending the message that this is a problem of Serbia, and that we are capable of solving it ourselves."

It was the first time since 1992 that Serbia had extended an open offer of talks on Kosovo.

The militant Kosovo Liberation Army, which the police say they "liquidated" last week, issued a statement vowing to fight on for Kosovo's independence and calling on all Albanians to join the battle.

More moderate leaders said that independence for the province, where Albanians make up 1.8 million percent of the 2 million residents, would be better than restoration of the autonomy stripped away by then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 1989.