Prime Minister: Kosovo to Declare Independence Within Weeks

Kosovo's independence is just weeks away, newly elected Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said Wednesday, calling anew on Serbia to give up its claim to the fiercely contested province.

"It's an issue of weeks and Kosovo will be an independent, sovereign and democratic country," Thaci told The Associated Press in an interview in his residence in the provincial capital, Pristina, on the day he became Kosovo's premier.

"Independence is everything for us. We have sacrificed — we deserve it," said Thaci, a former rebel leader. "Independence is our right. It's our future."

Thaci cautioned that no move would be made without the approval of the United States and key European powers. Kosovo's secession is fiercely opposed by Serbia and Russia.

"Kosovo will do nothing without Washington and Brussels. No unilateral actions," Thaci said.

But, he added: "Kosovo is ready and united."

No declaration is likely before Serbia's presidential elections, which begin with a first round on Jan. 20 and are likely to involve a runoff on Feb. 3.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders have refused to set a date for their declaration of independence, but they have hinted they would press forward with secession early this year.

Serbia, backed by Russia, insists that Kosovo — considered the cradle of Serbia's medieval state and religion — should remain part of its territory.

International envoys failed last year to resolve Kosovo's political future. Russia has threatened to veto any U.N. Security Council measure allowing Kosovo to become a country.

Thaci is Kosovo's fifth prime minister since the southern Serbian province came under U.N. administration. The U.N. took control of Kosovo after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that ended a Serb crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians.

The province legally remains part of Serbia.

Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo, which won the most votes in November elections, will govern alongside its main opponent, President Fatmir Sejdiu's Democratic League of Kosovo.

Both parties support statehood for the province, whose population is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian. Jointly, the parties will hold 62 seats in the province's 120-seat assembly.

Thaci's rise to prime minister is likely to cause a stir in Serbia, which has accused him of war crimes committed while he led the Kosovo Liberation Army in its fight against troops loyal to the late Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

But Thaci sought to reassure the province's Serb minority that it would be safe in an independent Kosovo, and he called anew on Belgrade to relinquish the territory.

"Kosovo will be a country for everybody," Thaci said.