PRISTINA Kosovo Albanians said on Monday they would start immediate talks with Western backers about an independence declaration, but Russia said unilateral recognition could trigger a "chain reaction" of problems around the world.
With a U.N. deadline for agreement on the fate of Serbia's breakaway province expiring on Monday, Serbia said it would try to seek an International Court of Justice opinion on the legitimacy of a declaration of independence.
In Brussels, EU ministers said they had come closer to agreeing a common position on independence for Kosovo.
"From today, Kosovo begins consultations with key international partners to coordinate the next steps to a declaration of independence," Skender Hyseni, spokesman of Kosovo's negotiating team with Serbia, said in Pristina.
"Kosovo and the people of Kosovo urgently need clarity on their future ... The institutions of Kosovo will deliver that clarity very soon."
He said a declaration would come "much earlier than May", referring to one rumored timeframe.
In Washington, the State Department echoed the urgency and reaffirmed it backed moves to help Kosovo towards supervised independence with provisions to protect its Serb minority.
"U.N. MUST DECIDE"
Serbia, firmly against independence, insisted that only the United Nations had the authority to determine Kosovo's future.
"That process belongs to the U.N. Security Council and to all countries that are members of the U.N., not to the EU," Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic said on the sidelines of a conference in Belgrade about EU accession.
President Boris Tadic told state television that Serbia would urgently ask the Security Council to request an opinion from the International Court of Justice, "asking whether the independence of Kosovo would be legal".
Even if the divided Council agreed to send such a request, the Court could take years to issue an opinion, which would in any case be advisory and non-binding.
Kosovo, which has a 90-percent Albanian majority, has been in legal limbo under U.N. administration since NATO bombing in 1999 pushed out Serbian forces to end ethnic cleansing.
Serbia's main ally on the issue is Russia, able to veto any recognition of Kosovo by the U.N. Security Council.
Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in Nicosia that a unilateral declaration would "create a chain reaction throughout the Balkans and other areas of the world".
Later, after meeting EU officials in Brussels, he said Russia would pre-empt any moves by Western powers to win U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's backing for the view that U.N. Resolution 1244 could remain valid even after independence.
The resolution is the basis for international supervision of Kosovo's protectorate status, and could help the EU in its aim of taking over police and justice tasks in Kosovo from the United Nations, while NATO troops remain in place.
"The institution of the secretary-general ... should not in anyway be compromised, and we will do what we can to ensure that is the case," Lavrov said.
EU STILL DIVIDED
The European Union's internal divisions paralyzed its attempts to halt the Balkan wars of the 1990s. This time it is seeking a unified position to try to encourage Serbia and Russia to accept independence for Kosovo, and to enable the EU to take responsibility for helping to maintain order there.
But at least three nations -- Spain, Cyprus and Slovakia -- blocked agreement at talks in Brussels on Monday.
"We are in support of a negotiated settlement ... and would not like to see anything undermining the international legal basis," Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou Markoullis said.
Spain's Miguel Angel Moratinos said: "Never in history has a unilateral declaration of independence been positive."
Slovakia also said it would find it hard to recognize an independent Kosovo, though Foreign Minister Jan Kubis said the EU could still deploy a 1,600-strong police mission there.
The EU executive would also like to appoint a civilian representative in a supervisory role in Kosovo.
French Secretary of State for Europe Jean-Pierre Jouyet said he expected some EU capitals to take time to recognize Kosovo's sovereignty but insisted all would back the mission, adding: "That will be the yardstick on which unity will be measured."
Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the situation by telephone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday, Russian news agencies reported.
Four months of internationally-mediated talks on Kosovo, which ended last week, produced no compromise between Serbia and Kosovo's Albanians on Kosovo's future status.
(Additional reporting by correspondents in Pristina, Nicosia, Belgrade, Moscow, United Nations, Washington, Paris and Ostrava; Writing by Mark John; editing by Kevin Liffey)