Kosovo edges closer to historic declaration of independence

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The red Albanian flags with their two-headed eagles are fluttering across Kosovo as the Serbian province edges closer to a historic declaration of independence, which is expected tomorrow.

The flags were draped yesterday from shops, homes, graveyards, hotels and petrol stations from the Serbian border down to Pristina, the capital. Kosovo's own flag will be unveiled along with other attributes of the world's newest nation state, which will also be one of the smallest, when the big day actually comes.

But the Kosovan Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, gave the suspense an extra twist when he showed up for a press conference yesterday at a hurriedly opened media centre in Pristina's Grand Hotel andavoided mentioning the issue. The video cameras and notebooks of the world were on him, but instead he used the occasion to announce the setting up of a government office to deal with the problems and grievances of the province's Serbian minority, who constitute about 10 per cent of the two million population.

Immense trouble is being taken by the American and European backers of an independent Kosovo to minimise the risk of its rift with Serbia turning violent. Mr Thaci, a former guerrilla commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army, had presumably been persuaded to keep his powder dry for the declaration itself.

European diplomats are only too aware that the Balkans is treacherous ground. On Thursday night a bomb exploded in a house in Mitrovica, the city in northern Kosovo divided between the ethnic Albanian Kosovars in the south and Serbs in the north, by the river Ibar. Mitrovica is the main flashpoint in the province, where dozens were killed in ethnic violence in 2004.

The bomb, which shattered windows but caused no injuries, went off in a house next to the offices of the EU mission in Kosovo, in the Serb-controlled northern sector of the city. Police denied that international officials had been targeted in the attack.

The preparations for the expected declaration overshadowed yesterday's inauguration in Belgrade of Serbia's new President, Boris Tadic, who used the opportunity to warn that Serbia could downgrade its diplomatic ties with countries that choose to recognise Kosovo. "Bilateral ties ... would not be of the quality and level they are today," he said, but he denied that diplomatic relations would be severed altogether.

Mr Tadic was elected President on a pro-EU ticket, opposing the hard-line nationalism of the Radical Party candidate, Tomislav Nikolic. But as Kosovo's independence day approached, his rhetoric too has been growing more nationalistic and less conciliatory. "I will never give up fighting for Kosovo, and I will, with all my might, fight for Serbia to join the European Union," he said yesterday. Joining the EU is the goal of both Serbia and Kosovo.

It was left to the Serbian Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, to ring the Serbian bells of bitterness and bile. "Throughout history," he declared, "many oppressors have tried forcibly to wrench Kosovo from us, but this is the first time [they] are demanding that we accept this in a slave-like manner."

He was referring to efforts by Brussels to link Serbia's accession to the EU to the country's attitude toward the UN-administered province. Kosovo became a region of Serbia as recently as 1945, but its countryside is dotted with Serbian Orthodox monasteries.

However, despite the violence of the rhetoric, all was quiet on both sides of the Serb-Kosovo border. In Belgrade a protest meeting drew only a thousand people. No military or police presence was seen near the border, and in Kosovo, Nato's 16,000 troops were keeping a low profile.

Kosovars are preparing to throw a massive party when independence is declared. As for the Serbs, the most hard-headed of them recognise that Kosovo was lost for good in the war of 1999, when tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians were forced into exile. But no government politician – not even President Tadic – has the courage to spell it out.

Timetable for a breakaway state

* Tomorrow

The parliament in Pristina declares Kosovo's independence following confirmation of EU approval for a police and justice mission. The Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, will read a proclamation which commits Kosovo to be a multi-ethnic and democratic republic. Kosovo will confirm that the independence plan will be internationally supervised as agreed. The EU will be invited to establish a mission to replace the UN administration, and Nato will be asked to maintain troops in Kosovo. Russia is expected to react with a call for an emergency session of the UN Security Council, although no action is expected. Serbian ministers will travel to the northern part of Kosovo, where the Serb minority is concentrated, in a gesture of support for the minority.

* Monday

EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels and individual countries will announce their recognition of Kosovo. Most, including the UK, will do so. However Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia will not, and Greece, Spain and Bulgaria are not expected to recognise the new state immediately. US recognition will be announced. The EU will reaffirm its readiness to take a supervisory role in Kosovo.

* Midweek

Government-organised protests are expected in Serbia. Serbian ambassadors may be recalled from countries that have recognised Kosovo, in protest.

* April/May

Completion of deployment of the 2,200-strong EU police and justice mission.