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A Kosovar Albanian man places an Albanian flag on his rooftop over the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo, to celebrate the upcoming independence of Kosovo. (Bela Szandelszky/The Associated Press)

Kosovo prepares declaration of independence

PRISTINA, Kosovo: 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 United Nations and appealing directly to the United States and other countries for recognition, Kosovo set up a showdown with Serbia - outraged at the imminent loss of its territory - and Russia, which warned that the declaration 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 Serbian troops in a 1998-99 conflict that claimed 10,000 lives, was expected to convene an extraordinary session of Parliament on 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."

Underscoring Serbs' 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 United Nations and NATO since the war ended in 1999. The province is still protected by 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers, and the alliance increased its patrols over the weekend in hopes of discouraging violence.

International police officers, 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 the ceremony Sunday 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 the two million people in Kosovo are ethnic Albanian - most moderate or nonpracticing Muslims, the rest Roman Catholics - and they see no reason to stay joined to the rest of Christian Orthodox Serbia.

Kosovo looked to the United States 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.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, 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.

The Serbian 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 recognized Kosovo's independence.

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Bela Szandelszky/The Associated Press
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