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Celebration, anxiety as Kosovo braces for independence

Latest update : 2008-02-17

Kosovars are already celebrating in the streets of Pristina, but the Serbian minority worries as the declaration of independence looms, expected Sunday afternoon.

PRISTINA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Kosovo Albanians will proclaim
independence from Serbia on Sunday, ending a long chapter in the
bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.

Kosovo will be the 6th state carved from the Serb-dominated
federation since 1991, after Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia,
Bosnia and Montenegro, and the last to escape Serbia's embrace.

The Serbs vow never to give up the land where their history
goes back 1,000 years.

They will reject independence in defiance of the Albanians
and their Western backers and will keep their grip on
strongholds in northern Kosovo, making the ethnic partition of
the new state a reality from the start.

 "The influence of Belgrade has ended," Kosovo Prime
Minister Hashim Thaci said. "The success of Kosovo's
independence as a new beginning will be clearly measured by
respect for the rights of minorities, especially Serbs," the
former guerrilla promised.

Triumphant celebrations began hours ahead of the declaration
by parliament due on Sunday afternoon. The snowy streets of the
capital were packed late into the night. Cavalcades of cars
circled with horns blaring and Albanian flags in every hand.

Ten years ago this week, Serb forces fought an Albanian
guerrilla uprising, killing civilians who got in the way. Major
Western powers were calling for talks. Russia backed Serbia in
its battle with "terrorists".

Determined to end a decade of humiliation from Belgrade
under the late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic, the Albanians fought
on until the West, unable to sit powerless after other Balkan
bloodbaths, bombed Serbia into submission in 1999.

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since Serb forces
withdrew in June that year. Promised recognition by the United
States and major European Union powers, Kosovo's 90 percent
Albanian majority can now ignore Serb warnings.

The European Union will deploy a rule-of-law mission of some
2,000 starting next month to take over from the United Nations.
A NATO-led peace force of 16,000 troops will stay on.

Establishing their writ in Serb-dominated land north of the
Ibar River will be their toughest challenge. Serbia says the EU
mission is illegitimate because it has no U.N. mandate, and its
major ally Russia backs that position.



Serbia promised reprisals but kept them secret. Analysts
believe any trade, diplomatic or bureaucratic blockade will be
relatively short-lived. But they say impoverised Kosovo, whose
population of 2 million is Europe's youngest, will need a lot of
development aid and on-the-spot guidance for years to come.

Western powers are also nervously watching for any Kosovo
fallout in ethnically divided Bosnia, where some Serbs threaten
to secede, breaking up their uneasy partnership with Muslims and
Croats in what would be yet another Balkan fragmentation.

And in neighbouring Macedonia, where NATO and the EU stepped
in to cut short an ethnic guerrilla war, the Macedonian-Albanian
coalition had its fingers crossed for a soft landing in Kosovo.
NATO peacekeepers were not relying on optimism. French
troops prepared concrete and razor-wire barriers to separate
Serbs from Albanians in the flashpoint city of Mitrovica.

The commander of NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, French
Lieutenant-General Xavier de Marnhac, said his troops "will
react and oppose any provocation that may happen during these
days, whether from the Albanian or the Serb side".

Most Serbs fled Kosovo in 1999, fearing Albanian vengeance.
Of the 120,000 who stayed, about half live in the northern
enclave. But the rest are scattered in small, isolated and
vulnerable villages.

Church leaders urged them not to panic.

"Our message to you, all Serbs in Kosovo, is to remain in
your homes and around your monasteries, regardless of what God
allows our enemies do," Bishop Artemije, the head of the Serbian
Orthodox Church in Kosovo, told a service in Mitrovica.

Kosovo's declaration will come at a session of parliament to
begin at 3.00 p.m. (1400 GMT). Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav
Kostunica will address his country at 4.00 p.m. (1500 GMT).

The weather forecast was for heavy snow all day long.

Date created : 2008-02-17