Kosovo's Leader Says Parliament Will Meet to Declare Independence From Serbia

Kosovo's prime minister said parliament will meet Sunday for a special session to declare the province's independence, a bold and historic bid for statehood in defiance of Serbia and Russia.

By sidestepping the U.N. and appealing directly to the U.S. and other nations for recognition, Kosovo's independence sets up a showdown with Serbia -- outraged at the imminent loss of its territory -- and Russia, which warns of a dangerous precedent for separatist groups worldwide.

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said top leaders would meet at noon to decide the exact timing of the extraordinary session, at which the breakaway province would proclaim the Republic of Kosovo and unveil the new country's flag and national crest.

"We are on the brink of a very crucial moment -- an important decision that will make us one of the free nations of the world," said Thaci, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army whose ethnic Albanian guerrillas clashed with Serb troops in a 1998-99 conflict that claimed 10,000 lives.

President Bush, speaking in Tanzania on a tour of Africa, said the United States "will continue to work with our allies to the very best we can to make sure there's no violence" in the aftermath of Kosovo's proclamation.

Underscoring Serbian anger, about 1,000 people staged a noisy protest in Belgrade on Saturday, waving Serbian flags and chanting "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia."

Bush said it was in "Serbia's interest to be aligned with Europe and the Serbian people can know that they have a friend in America." He also praised Kosovo's government for showing "its willingness and its desire to support Serbian rights in Kosovo."

Kosovo has formally remained a part of Serbia even though it has been administered by the U.N. and NATO since the war ended in 1999. The province is still protected by 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers, and the alliance boosted its patrols over the weekend in hopes of discouraging violence. International police, 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," said Ljubinko Stefanovic, a resident of the ethnically divided northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica.

At Sunday's ceremony, parliament speaker Jakup Krasniqi would read out the independence declaration in a live television broadcast, and lawmakers would be asked to adopt it. 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 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 Kosovo's 2 million people are ethnic Albanian -- most moderate or non-practicing Muslims, the rest Roman Catholics -- and they see no reason to stay joined to the rest of Christian Orthodox Serbia.

With Russia, a staunch Serbian ally, determined to block the bid, Kosovo looked to the U.S. 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, Belgium.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, arguing that independence without U.N. approval would set a dangerous precedent for "frozen conflicts" across the former Soviet Union and around the world, pressured the Security Council to intervene.

Serbia's government ruled out any military response as part of a secret "action plan" drafted earlier this week as a response, but warned that it would downgrade relations with any foreign government that recognizes Kosovo's independence.