Kosovo expected to declare independence Sunday

Prime Minister Thaci set to convene special session of parliament to proclaim new republic.

kosovo independence 224 (photo credit: AP)
kosovo independence 224
(photo credit: AP)
A decade after Serbia sent in troops to crush a rebellion, Kosovo prepared to declare independence on Sunday - a bold and historic move to carve a new country out of a corner of Europe long bloodied by ethnic strife. By sidestepping the UN and appealing directly to the US and other nations for recognition, Kosovo's independence set up a showdown with Serbia, outraged at the imminent loss of its territory, and Russia, which warned that it would set a dangerous precedent for separatist groups worldwide. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army whose ethnic Albanian guerrillas clashed with Serb troops in a 1998-99 conflict that claimed 10,000 lives, was expected to convene an extraordinary session of parliament Sunday afternoon to proclaim the Republic of Kosovo. On the eve of the Serbian province's bid for statehood, Thaci hailed it as "a historic day in our effort to create a state." "We are getting our independence," he said Saturday night in a nationally televised address. "Everything is a done deal. The world's map is changing." US President George W. Bush said on a visit to Africa that the United States "will continue to work with our allies to the very best we can to make sure there's no violence." "We are heartened by the fact that the Kosovo government has clearly proclaimed its willingness and its desire to support Serbian rights in Kosovo," Bush said. "We also believe it's in Serbia's interest to be aligned with Europe and the Serbian people can know that they have a friend in America." Underscoring Serb anger, about 1,000 people staged a noisy protest in Belgrade on Saturday, waving Serbian flags and chanting "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia." Kosovo has formally remained a part of Serbia even though it has been administered by the UN and NATO since the war ended in 1999. The province is still protected by 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers, and the alliance boosted its patrols over the weekend in hopes of discouraging violence. International police, meanwhile, deployed to back up local forces in the tense north. "It would be best for the Americans to take the Albanians to America and give them a part of their territory, so that they could have a small republic there," Ljubinko Stefanovic, a resident of the ethnically divided northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, said in disgust. Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership kept details of Sunday's ceremony under wraps, but Thaci was to meet with the parliament speaker at midmorning to formally request a special session. A declaration of independence would be read out in the chamber, where the proceedings were to be broadcast live on television, and lawmakers would be asked to adopt it. The speaker, Jakup Krasniqi, would then proclaim Kosovo independent from Serbia, and lawmakers would vote on the new nation's flag and crest. The Kosovo Philharmonic Orchestra planned to play Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" at a sports hall, where top leaders would gather for speeches and toasts. They then planned to sign their names on giant iron letters spelling out "NEWBORN" to be displayed in downtown Pristina, the capital. Fireworks and an outdoor concert were scheduled for later in the evening. Spontaneous street celebrations broke out for a second straight night Saturday, with giddy Kosovars waving red and black Albanian flags and sounding car horns. "This will be a joyful day," said Besnik Berisha, a Pristina resident. "The town looks great, and the party should start." Ninety percent of Kosovo's 2 million people are ethnic Albanian - most moderate or non-practicing Muslims, the rest Roman Catholics - and they see no reason to stay joined to the rest of Christian Orthodox Serbia. With Russia, a staunch Serbian ally, determined to block the bid, Kosovo looked to the US and key European powers for swift recognition of its status as the continent's newest nation. That recognition was likely to come Monday at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium. Russian President Vladimir Putin, arguing that independence without UN approval would set a dangerous precedent for "frozen conflicts" across the former Soviet Union and around the world, pressured the Security Council to intervene. Serbia's government ruled out any military response as part of its secret "action plan" drafted earlier this week as a response, but warned that it would downgrade relations with any foreign government that recognizes Kosovo's independence.