Kosovo was poised to become the world's newest state on Sunday, albeit under the guidance of the European Union and the United States, as it prepared to declare independence from Serbia.
The parliament of the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian province was expected to proclaim independence around 14.00 GMT, in the wake of a night of euphoric celebrations in the capital Pristina.
Diplomatic recognition by Washington and key European capitals would follow within 24 hours or so, even though Belgrade regards Kosovo as the cradle of Serb culture and religion and sees its independence as illegal.
"The constitution is ready and national symbols are ready," said Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, who a decade ago led an ethnic Albanian guerilla war against the then Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's security forces.
"I want to make clear that independence is a closed chapter. We have to focus on the future," he added, as cheering throngs of flag-waving Kosovars poured onto Pristina's snow-dusted streets in anticipation of independence.
Independence would also bring down the curtain on the long and brutal break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s that followed the demise of communism in Europe and witnessed the continent's worst atrocities since World War II.
Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999 when a US-led NATO air war against Milosevic's regime wrested the landlocked province of two million people - 90 per cent of them ethnic Albanians - from Belgrade's grip.
Once independence is declared, a 120-day transition period will get underway, marked by the deployment of a 2,000-strong European Union police and judicial team intended to smoothen the transition and ensure democracy.
With an estimated 40 per cent unemployment rate, and half its population under the age of 25, Kosovo will also remain highly dependent on massive infusions of Western economic aid.
Belgrade on Saturday vowed to oppose the EU mission, dubbed EULUX.
"The government of Serbia explicitly opposes the arrival of the EU mission without a clear legal basis which can be given only by the UN Security Council," Serbian deputy prime minister Bozidar Djelic said in a formal statement of protest to the Slovenian presidency of the European Union.
Thaci signalled Saturday the newborn nation would act swiftly to join international institutions such as the United Nations.
Russia - Serbia's closest partner on the global stage, and mindful that Kosovo's independence might set a precedent in restive corners of its vast territory - is certain to block such moves.
On the eve of the anticipated declaration of independence, the NATO-led peacekeeping Kosovo Force - with 15,000 troops from 34 nations - said it would intervene robustly to prevent any inter-ethnic violence.
"KFOR will respond - with force - to any provocation, wherever it may come from, be it the Albanian or the Serb side," said KFOR's commander, French General Xavier Bout de Marnhac.
He spoke to reporters at the tense, ethnically divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica, where Serb minority leaders vowed to boycott the institutions that will underpin an independent Kosovo.
An estimated 120,000 Serbs live in Kosovo, which is home to some of the most important shrines of the Serbian Orthodox faith. More than 220,000 others have left since 1999.
Belgrade is imploring Serbs in Kosovo to stay put as an act of defiance - a message echoed Saturday by the pretender to the long-abolished Serbian throne, Crown Prince Aleksandar II, who now lives in London.
"The most important thing for you is to stay here and remain calm," he told a Serb crowd in Kosovska Mitrovica, where he attended Othodox mass. "Wisdom, calm, along with law and order are our only weapons. You must not forget that." (AFP)
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