PRISTINA, Serbia (AFP) – Political tensions rose Friday ahead of Kosovo’s imminent declaration of independence from Serbia, which up until the last minute is fighting what it calls a “serious threat.”
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci refused to confirm that the declaration would come Sunday, but Serbia and the international community is stepping up preparations for an announcement then.
Serbian President Boris Tadic vowed to do everything to keep Kosovo within the Serbian republic when he was sworn in for a second term on Friday in Belgrade. Serbia also called a special meeting of a key European security body to discuss Kosovo’s split.
Freshly-printed posters appeared on the streets of Kosovo’s capital Pristina that appealed for calm during celebrations expected across the ethnic Albanian dominated province, a longtime tinderbox in the Balkans.
“Celebrate with dignity,” read the posters, which were illustrated simply with a bright red heart. “For a good start. For Kosovo. Kosovo welcomes the future.”
The Bota Sot newspaper said Kosovo deputies had been ordered to stay close to Pristina on Sunday and to be prepared for the provincial parliament to be convened at three hours’ notice.
Asked at a press conference in Pristina what date the split would come, Thaci replied: “Let’s stick to what the press conference is about.” He called the meeting to vow to personally uphold minority Serb rights.
“In independent Kosovo, not one citizen will feel discriminated against or neglected,” he said in Albanian. “We guarantee equal rights and security. Kosovo is the homeland of all citizens.”
In the ethnically divided northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica, however, local Serb leaders who reject independence announced they had decided to accept a proposal by Belgrade to form their own parliament.
“The Association of Serb Municipalities and Localities has decided to organise, in coordination with Belgrade, elections for a Kosovo parliament,” the association said in a statement.
The polls would be held during “local and regional elections scheduled for May 11” in Serbia proper, it added, in a statement that raised the spectre of a post-independence partition.
Kosovo’s parliament convened earlier Friday to agree a procedure to adopt new laws that would come into effect upon independence, including measures to guarantee the safety of the jittery Serb minority.
More than 220,000 Serbs have fled the province since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999 when NATO bombing ended a clampdown by Serb forces against separatist ethnic Albanian rebels.
Kosovo’s break is backed by main EU powers and the United States, while Serbia is strongly supported by Russia in opposing the creation of a new state.
The European Union is to imminently start sending a 2,000 strong force of police and legal experts to help the transition to independence.
Posters in Pristina emblazoned with US, British and EU flags, and sponsored by local businesses, expressed thanks “to all the countries who are contributing and supporting the independence of Kosovo.”
Independence for Kosovo would close the chapter on the United Nations administration that began in 1999 after the NATO campaign against then Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
But the impending split has stoked nationalist fervour in Serbia.
“I want clearly to confirm: I will never give up the fight for our Kosovo and, with all my strength, I will fight for Serbia to be in the European Union,” Tadic declared as he took his presidential oath, sealing his election win this month.
Belgrade and Moscow slammed any declaration of independence as “null and void” and a violation of international law, as they made last-ditch appeals to the UN Security Council on Thursday.
“Let me be clear. The Republic of Serbia shall never accept any violation of its territorial integrity,” Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told a closed-door meeting of the council in New York.
Serbia called for a special meeting of the permanent council of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to discuss Kosovo and the Serbian foreign minister will address the session, an OSCE spokeswoman said.
The Serbian delegation said it had requested the meeting because the “illegal” unilateral declaration “represents a serious threat to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a participating state of the OSCE.”
Serbs make up less than 10 percent of Kosovo’s population but see the province as the sacred cradle of their Orthodox culture and religion dating back centuries.
In neighbouring Bosnia meanwhile, the country’s Muslim leader expressed fears that the Serb entity Republika Srpska might try and go the same way as Kosovo.
“The whole region is entering a delicate period. There are groups and organisations that would like to convey an atmosphere of tensions even in Bosnia,” Haris Silajdzic told journalists in Sarajevo.