December 10, 2007 / 1:14 PM / 12 years ago

Kosovo moves to independence "earlier than May"

PRISTINA, Serbia (Reuters) - Kosovo said on Monday it would immediately start talks with its Western backers on a declaration of independence from Serbia, which would come “much earlier than May”.

Leaders of Kosovo’s 2 million ethnic Albanians made the announcement as a December 10 deadline for a negotiated deal on the fate of the breakaway province passed without result.

“From today, Kosovo begins consultations with key international partners to coordinate the next steps to a declaration of independence,” said Skender Hyseni, spokesman of Kosovo’s “unity team” in negotiations with Serbia.

“Kosovo and the people of Kosovo urgently need clarity on their future,” Hyseni said.

Kosovo has been in limbo since NATO expelled Serb forces in 1999 to stop the killing of civilians in a counter-insurgency war. Around 10,000 people died, the vast majority Albanians.

The 90-percent Albanian majority reject return to Serb rule. They have promised to coordinate a declaration of independence with the United States and the European Union, which is due to take over supervision of the territory from the United Nations.

Serbia, backed by Russia, opposes independence for land it sees as the historical cradle of the nation. Warnings of chaos in the Balkans appeared to have failed to divide the 27-member EU, which on Monday expressed almost “full unity” on the issue.

Asked to clarify speculation on the timing of a declaration, Hyseni said it would happen “much earlier than May”. Diplomats say it could come in January or February, depending on the timing of an expected presidential election in Serbia.

BREAKAWAY

NATO’s 16,000-strong Kosovo peace force is braced for violence, and a possible bid by the Serb north to break away. Around 120,000 Serbs remain, most in isolated enclaves. Kosovo’s U.N. overseers have failed to extend any real control over the north, which backs on to Serbia proper and is run from Belgrade.

In the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica, the likely frontline for any partition bid, Serbia’s Minister for Kosovo opened a ministry office and promised Belgrade would “intensify” a network of parallel institutions for the Serb minority, beyond U.N. control.

Slobodan Samardzic said Serbia would “fight back” if Kosovo Serbs came under attack from Albanian hardliners. “Serbia will not give in,” he told reporters. “It’s not finished yet.”

In a report submitted to the United Nations last Friday, mediators from the United States, European Union and Russia said four months of talks found no compromise between Serbia’s offer of autonomy and the Albanian majority’s demand for independence.

Washington and almost all EU states see Kosovo’s independence as the best way to stability in the Balkans after the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The EU is preparing to send 1,600 policemen and an overseer to replace the U.N. mission.

Russia blocked a Western-backed independence plan at the U.N. Security Council this summer, after more than a year of Serb-Albanian talks, and has warned Kosovo’s secession will set a precedent for other separatist regions. The West now appears ready to move ahead without a new U.N. resolution.

Kosovo Albanians are desperate for the jobs and investment they hope will come with statehood. Some 1,000 students marched in Kosovo’s capital Pristina, chanting “Independence” and waving the U.S. flag. One placard read: “Europe, show unity.”

Editing by Keith Weir

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