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Got conflict? Mr. Ahtisaari is your man.

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Keep an eye on his fingers. And if he starts testily tapping his pencil on the table, back off.

That piece of advice for Serbian and Kosovar negotiators, who meet here today for a new round of talks on Kosovo's future, comes from belligerents in other conflicts who have settled their differences under the watchful - and sometimes exasperated - eye of Martti Ahtisaari.

The reputation of the self-deprecating former Finnish president as an impartial mediator has made him the world's "go-to guy" for international crises.

When NATO needed its surrender terms delivered to Slobodan Milosevic at the end of the Kosovo war, Mr. Ahtisaari was their man. He shepherded Namibia to independence, inspected secret IRA arms dumps as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, and last year brokered a peace agreement between Indonesia and Aceh separatists.

Now, as the UN Special Envoy for Kosovo, Ahtisaari is seeking an answer to one of Europe's thorniest questions: Can Serbs and ethnic Albanians agree on a status for the independence-minded Balkan province of Serbia-Montenegro?

Most diplomats would shy from that task, regarded by some as impossible. But as Ahtisaari said recently in a wide-ranging interview in his sparsely decorated office here, his track record gives him a head start. "I've been around and done so many things by now, it's easier to tolerate me than many others," he chuckled.

A former refugee willing to take risks

He brings another talent to the table, too. For a man who has spent his 40-year career as a Finnish Foreign Service officer and senior United Nations bureaucrat, he is unusually willing to stick his neck out.

"He is more a private-sector type than a typical administrator," says Juha Christensen, who worked closely with Ahtisaari last year while he mediated an end to the 30-year conflict in the Indonesian province of Aceh. "He has the ability to take risks."

Ahtisaari, who speaks fluent English in a quiet, measured voice with a slight Scandinavian rasp, was born with one natural advantage for a mediator: He comes from the almost obsessively neutral country of Finland.

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