- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2008

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The Serbian minister for Kosovo said yesterday that his government has learned the province’s ethnic Albanian leadership will declare independence on Feb. 17. Western diplomats said they expected the move a day later.

Slobodan Samardzic said Serbia’s government has received “relevant information” that Kosovo’s government will “illegally declare unilateral independence of Kosovo on Sunday, Feb. 17.” He did not specify the source of information and Belgrade remains fiercely opposed to the loss of the province.

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders have said they will declare independence from Serbia “in a matter of days,” but never specified the exact date. Serbia regards the province as the cradle of its statehood, and expressions of nationalist anger have increased as the independence declaration approached.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci would not comment on the Feb. 17 date, but insisted Kosovo’s split from Serbia was “a done deal.”

“I can only confirm today that we have the confirmation from some 100 states which say they are ready to recognize Kosovo’s independence,” Mr. Thaci said in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.

In Munich, Serbian President Boris Tadic, considered a relatively pro-Western moderate, told a major security conference there would be no winners if Kosovo’s leaders pressed ahead without a negotiated deal.

“If such negotiations don’t occur, I fear all three parties will end up paying an extremely high price,” Mr. Tadic said, referring to Kosovo’s Albanians, Serbia and the international community. “That is something none of us can afford.”

Bishop Artemije, spiritual leader of Kosovo’s Serbian Orthodox minority, said his community would not recognize any independence declaration from Pristina and would remain loyal to Belgrade.

“Independence is not the only option,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times on a U.S. visit this week. “The West tells us to compromise, but the only choice we are given is capitulation.”

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said yesterday the Bush administration wants to see the final status of Kosovo “resolved and resolved in the not-too-distant future.”

But he said he could not discuss the “intentions of the leadership either in Serbia or in Kosovo.”

Serbia’s main ally, Russia, opposes Kosovo’s independence, asserting it would set a precedent worldwide. Other EU states, including Romania and Cyprus, also have deep reservations, fearing it would spark new ethnic violence in the Balkans and encourage other separatist movements.

But the U.S. and a clear majority of EU nations are expected to back Kosovo’s statehood, saying the U.N.-run southern province, where 2 million Albanians represent an overwhelming majority, is a special case that deserves to be independent from Belgrade.

As nationalist tensions rose sharply, an explosion shook a shopping mall yesterday in Serbia. No one was injured and the explosion caused only minor damage.

Mr. Samardzic’s statement was issued after a meeting with a senior European Union official, Stefan Lehne, who was in Belgrade to clarify the bloc’s plans to send an EU policing and administrative mission to Kosovo.

Serbia has rejected the mission, saying it would be a prelude to the province’s independence.

Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this story from Washington.

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