Albanians rejoice in their march to freedom

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Hasan Rexit does not know or care much about the details of the resolution which lays down the terms of a political solution for Kosovo.

Hasan Rexit does not know or care much about the details of the resolution which lays down the terms of a political solution for Kosovo.

"It is just a piece of paper. But if it is that paper which is keeping us from becoming independent then it should be torn up," he said.

A senior US State Department official told The Independent yesterday that Washington was reviewing its interpretation of the document, United Nations Resolution 1244, in a policy change that would provide for the Serbian province to become independent. Until now, the Western allies have agreed that the resolution recognises Yugoslav sovereignty over Kosovo, which is currently under United Nations administration.

The views of Mr Rexit, a 28-year-old mechanic, were enthusiastically shared by a group standing at a street corner on a sunny day in Pristina, as they celebrated the holding of the province's local elections yesterday. "The Americans are our friends; they are just being realistic. They know we shall never go back to being in Yugoslavia. This is great news," said Amira Dedaj, as those around her nodded in unison.

For the vast majority of Kosovo Albanians, the refusal of the West to let them formally break free from Serbia has been an irritation ever since the UN and Nato took control. It turned to anger and frustration with the election as President of Vojislav Kostunica in Belgrade and the fear this will give the West the excuse to do a deal with him over the Serbian province. That paranoia has been fuelled by UN and Nato officials stressing Yugoslav rights under Resolution 1244.

The UN and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have insisted that the weekend's council election, which was boycotted by the minority Serb community and produced a convincing win for the Kosovar moderate Ibrahim Rugova, was a purely local one.

In Belgrade yesterday, Mr Kostunica's office issued a statement refusing to recognise the Kosovo elections, saying they were "contrary to Resolution 1244". But the Kosovo Albanians saw the polls as a dress rehearsal. The one issue all the main ethnic Albanian parties agree on is that there must be full independence for Kosovo.

"And Ibrahim Rugova should be president. He has won the election, and he will win the next one," declared Daoud Ghafi, taking his two grandsons out for an afternoon stroll. "Can you imagine this happening in other countries? You elect someone and then you are told that a foreigner, a Serb, should rule you.

"I was driven out of my home by the Chetniks [Serbs] and then they burnt down my home. It is American bombing which brought me back to Kosovo. The Americans are our friends. If they decide we should be independent, no one will be able to stop us."

Mr Rugova, whose party won 60 per cent of the vote, yesterday called for outright recognition of Kosovo independence while Nato-led K-For troops and the UN administration (Unmik) are still present. "I am for straightforward, formal recognition of Kosovo, better now, when K-For and Unmik are here," he said. "Today or tomorrow - for me, better today."

Dozens of nationalities are represented in the administration of Kosovo, but the US is the role model the young aspire to. At political rallies it is the Stars and Stripes that is waved beside Albania's flag.

"If you speak to some Albanians now, it is as if they owe what happened entirely to the Americans," said a British official. "We are fairly relaxed about that. After all, if you are to believe Hollywood films Americans have fought and won every single war since Troy. But this is a serious matter. If they are actually saying that Resolution 1244 can lead to Kosovo independence then they must be prepared to see it through. It would be very damaging to build up hopes and then not do anything about it."

A UN official, faced with this American interpretation of the UN resolution, was simply baffled. "A large degree of autonomy, yes. Negotiations towards a limited form of self-government, yes. But I do not see where it guarantees Kosovo independence," he said.

Dragan Stepanovic, an unemployed Serb electrician who refused to vote on Saturday, was more outspoken. "The Americans are prepared to twist everything. It would be breaking international law to take away Kosovo from Yugoslavia. What is going to happen to the Serbian people left here? Who is going to protect us? An independent Kosovo means we will be driven out or killed."