Diplomats at U.N. say Kosovo to assert independence Feb. 17

Times Staff Writer

Kosovo plans to unilaterally declare independence from Serbia on Feb. 17, European and U.S. diplomats at the U.N. said Thursday.

The move, though long expected, will be strongly opposed by Serbia and its powerful ally, Russia, triggering fears of renewed conflict in a region still haunted by Serbia's "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo Albanians in the late 1990s. Although the province is 90% ethnic Albanian, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in December that Kosovo was the "inalienable heart" of the Serbian nation, and that Serbia would fight to keep it.

Though Serbian leaders have not threatened outright violence if Kosovo breaks away, they have said they would boycott a European Union mission set to take over administration of the province; establish parallel institutions; and block access to Europe.

The United States and most of the European Union are expected to immediately recognize Kosovo's independence, and Security Council members said they expected an emergency session to be called as soon as Kosovo made the announcement. But Russia has vowed to block Security Council recognition or support for a U.N.-crafted plan to guide the province toward autonomy.

"We heard about the possibility of the 17th, but we still consider such a move against international law and remain opposed," Russian Deputy U.N. Ambassador Konstantin Dolgov said. "We will see each other in the Security Council before the end of that day."

Kosovo newspapers have been reporting for several days that Feb. 17 was the likely date for independence because it would come on the eve of a major meeting of the European Union's Council of Ministers.

That timing would allow the EU to react without having to call a potentially more disruptive emergency session, said Kosovo's leading daily, Koha Ditore.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, though declining to publicly set a date, said, "Kosovo is ready for its independence, having drafted its constitution, laws, symbols, flag and anthem."

A U.N. envoy, Marti Ahti- saari, presented a compromise plan last year to allow Kosovo to move gradually toward independence under the stewardship of EU administrators and North Atlantic Treaty Organization peacekeepers.

In December, the EU deployed about 1,800 police officers and prosecutors to Kosovo to oversee security.

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maggie.farley@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.

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